PMQs review: A pointless, baseless, but very noisy fight over the 50p tax rate

Both sides know that the top rate of income tax is mainly symbolic

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The Independent Online

David Cameron started Prime Minister’s Questions by agreeing with Ed Miliband. “I want the richest to pay more in tax.” At that point they could have moved on to discuss something important on which Government and Opposition disagree, such as the Immigration Bill, which will be before the Commons tomorrow. But that is not how PMQs works.

How PMQs works is that Miliband reads out a quotation without saying who said it. In this case someone who said that the 50p top rate of income tax would “have to stay”. If it were a pub quiz, Cameron would consult George Osborne and they would think that it was presumably one of them, but neither of them could remember saying it and so they would guess it was Cameron. That would be the right answer - in 2009 - as Miliband triumphantly revealed before asking his next question. But this wasn’t a pub quiz, it was the holding to account of the leader of the democratically elected government of a medium-sized rich nation, so Cameron ignored the question and said he wanted the rich to issue howls of anguish (or something) “and under this Government they are”.

Then, because this was not a pub quiz, Miliband ignored the Prime Minister’s agreeing with him and asked what he thought was a second wizard trick question instead. This is the old device of asking practising politicians to rule out something that is unlikely but on which they would rather keep their options open. Could Cameron rule out a further cut in the top rate of income tax, to abolish it altogether and return to the system that prevailed for 13 years of Labour government, when 40p in the pound was the highest rate?

No, of course the Prime Minister couldn’t do that. He wanted to play his own round of Guess the Quotation. This produced a wall of jeering from the Labour noise machine, which seems to operate on alternate weeks now. One week Miliband is the soft-spoken statesman; the next he is the point-scoring shouty-man, urged on by the orchestrated crowd noise.

He enjoys the noisy stuff more, and so does his coach and prompter, Ed Balls, who was urging him on. Balls knew that Cameron would conspicuously fail to answer the “will he rule out a cut to 40p” question, because he had tried it out on Osborne at Treasury Questions the day before. But this is all just games, because if Balls had been asked - without any of the theatrical build-up - if he would rule out the next Labour government cutting it to 40p, he would have dodged the question too. No Chancellor or Shadow Chancellor would normally limit his or her room for manoeuvre in that way.

Miliband and Balls seemed to be genuinely pleased with themselves today. They usually start the session by pretending to chat in a friendly way while the Prime Minister takes his first question from a backbencher, but this time they seemed to be egging each other on, eyes shining. Just as, on the other side, Osborne was volubly suggesting lines for Cameron to take in reply. After Miliband had finished his questions, he and Balls were engaged in a genuine conversation - you could tell it was not play-acting, because Miliband put his hand in front of his mouth, in the way that American football coaches cover their mouths with their play lists to stop the other side lip-reading them on television.

It is all a game. Both sides know that the top rate of income tax is mainly symbolic. Miliband and Balls want to use it as a symbol of the Tories as the party of the rich. Cameron and Osborne want to tax the rich as much as Balls does, and are embarrassed about the symbol, but can’t back off it now.

So there we have it. Two leaders and their seconds, who may have rather different world views but who disagree about surprisingly little in practice, manage to keep up a noisy public argument for a quarter of an hour - when they could just as well take each other’s position.