The Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, is fond of dismissing George Osborne as an "out of touch" public school toff whose primary interest is feathering the nests of the wealthy. But the Chancellor is a cannier politician than his opponents give credit for. It seems likely now that he will indeed cut the top rate of income tax from 50p on Wednesday; given the opportunity to scotch that incendiary rumour, yesterday he failed to do so. But just as anger mounts over what Labour, not to mention many Liberal Democrats, fear will be a Budget for the rich, he announces an intention to come down "like a ton of bricks" on tycoons avoiding stamp duty.
Labour will have reason to feel aggrieved if this opaque-sounding pledge to go after a few thousand super-rich people diverts attention from a handout to a much larger number of wealthy individuals. But whatever the Chancellor's motives, the planned crackdown is still a good idea, as well as being good politics. It is unjust that those in possession of the vastest fortunes in this country should be able to duck stamp duty by registering their properties in offshore companies based in places like the British Virgin Islands. According to the Land Registry, over 90,000 properties have been put out of the taxman's reach in this way over the past 12 years, depriving the country of more than £1bn in lost revenue.
It is no surprise to read that the list of names of those taking advantage of this loophole include various celebrities and foreign potentates who have never evinced the slightest desire to part with any more of their money than they absolutely have to. It is more disappointing to learn that the list includes Sir Bob Geldof, a man best known these days not for his former career as a Boomtown Rat but as a campaigner for the Developing World, and who has lectured the Government on the need to dig into its pockets to alleviate famines in Africa.
The Chancellor must now show he can deliver on his promise. When he is still telling ordinary Britons to keep tightening belts in the name of austerity and deficit reduction, it is absurd that the belt remains so loose on those who could easily take in a notch or two.