Editorial: A nation more divided

A tax handout to the rich and cuts for the poorest makes a mockery of 'all in it together'

The bedroom tax came into effect last week, along with cuts in council tax benefit and, yesterday, the cut in the top rate of income tax, which the Labour Party has called the "tax cut for millionaires". The timing of these changes is bad for the Government, as the contrast between the burden of deficit reduction being borne by the poorest and a tax handout to anyone earning more than £150,000 a year makes a mockery of its claim that we are "all in it together".

The Independent on Sunday knows, of course, that other tax changes, and the withdrawal of child benefit from the better-off, mean that the richest 10 per cent are – just – bearing the heaviest burden as a share of their income. But a 1 per cent drop in income means something very different to someone on £150,000 a year and to someone trying to live, as Conservative ministers claim they could, on £53 a week.

There are, as we report today, other ways too in which the burden of austerity is unfairly spread. Figures requested by Yvette Cooper, the shadow Equalities minister, from the impartial House of Commons Library, suggest that 94 per cent of the net cost of cutting the deficit will come from women (according to survey evidence about whether benefits and tax credits are paid into women's or men's bank accounts), and only 6 per cent from men.

Any chancellor would have a hard task in persuading the British people that the sacrifices demanded in tough times are fairly shared. But George Osborne has made that task three times harder. First, by cutting too far and too fast in the first place. Second, by the error in cutting the top tax rate yesterday from 50p to 45p in the pound. And third, by lacking the dignity of his office.

He has the unfortunate appearance of a young man who is too clever by half, playing at politics. Some of this is not his fault. But sometimes he does not help himself. Last year, he quite deliberately and without evidence said that his shadow, Ed Balls, was "clearly involved" in attempts to manipulate inter-bank interest rates under the last government. Last week, he failed to resist the temptation to comment on the case of Mick Philpott, calling for a "debate" on "subsidising lifestyles like that". It was, as Paul Vallely writes today, an "easy option"; but it was too easy, too naked an attempt to use the anger roused by an unpleasant and untypical case to divert legitimate criticism of government policy on welfare.

That kind of cynical politics – and the Prime Minister joined in, saying that welfare "shouldn't be there as a sort of lifestyle choice", as if anyone had advocated such a thing, or that having 17 children were the norm – will do the Government no good. It was never likely that ministers could persuade people that the cuts were fair so long as they stuck to their top-rate tax giveaway, but their attempt use the Philpott case to demonise benefit claimants generally was crass in its ineffectiveness.

And we say "ministers" rather than "Conservatives" because, of course, this government is a coalition. Sarah Teather, the Liberal Democrat former minister, writes today that her colleagues must choose between a country that is "more cohesive, more sympathetic, more neighbourly, or one more divided, more brutal and more selfish". As she says: "That is the responsibility and the privilege of power. Ministers should use it wisely."