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Speaking on this morning's Today programme (listen again here) George Osborne said that he could not promise to reverse Labour's new 50p rate of taxation for Britain's higher earners and wealth creators.

He said that his first priority was to stop Labour's intended increase in tax on lower earners.  He used the Blairite words, 'we want to protect the many, not the few' to explain his decision.

If the Conservatives are going to keep the 50p band then it will be one of Gordon Brown's final ideological victories.  He has massively expanded the reach of the state, entrenched dependency and levied over a hundred increased stealth taxes.  Now he has delivered a return to high rates of income tax – in direct breach of Labour's 2005 manifesto.

At some point George Osborne will have to start making unpopular decisions.  Perhaps they will all begin after polling day.  Perhaps the political caution will persist after polling day.  I no longer know.  I don't know if the Shadow Chancellor's caution is a very understandable pre-election tactic or if it is in his DNA.

The evidence points two ways:

  1. Mr Osborne has taken two big and impressive decisions as Shadow Chancellor.  He announced the inheritance tax cut at the 2007 Party Conference that killed Gordon Brown's hopes of a snap election.  He also opposed Alistair Darling's VAT cut when most of the world seemed in favour of fiscal stimuli.  That was a brave, correct and lonely decision although CCHQ had plenty of private polling evidence to suggest that voters would be on side.
  2. But George Osborne is also the man who matched Labour's spending plans when it was obvious that Britain was living beyond its means.  He's also the man who, for political reasons, wouldn't fight Labour's 45p tax band even though it would raise little or no money but could harm incentives to work and innovate.  He is also the man who has used up all of the spending restraint that the Tories promised for the next year.  All of the money that Labour planned to spend next year and Conservatives said we would not, has now been allocated to tax cuts for savers and to a £600m science expenditure.  That means debt would probably be as high under a Tory government in the coming year as under Labour.

At some point George Osborne will have to make unpopular decisions on public sector pay and on the size of the state.  He may also have to make unpopular defences of wealth creators and explain why Britain needs them.  I believe that the British people are ready to be told the truth.  I'd like us to have a mandate for what we do in government and to start telling voters now – in broad terms – how we will start to reduce debt.  Otherwise I fear our actions in government will always be just enough to keep things ticking over – managing decline again – but never quite enough to fundamentally put Britain back on course.

I'll give the final word to Matthew Parris who writes this for today's Times:

"As battle lines are drawn up over this Budget, and if the Prime Minister wants to invite his Tory adversaries to choose public spending and the taxation of wealth as the battlefield, I would recommend the Opposition to accept his invitation. “Yes,” should be their response, “you're right: we really are Tories, underneath. No indeed, just as you say, we haven't changed our spots. We still believe the State should limit what it takes from the individual taxpayer. We still believe that taxing success is destructive; we may or may not accept your 50p tax rate temporarily, but we don't like it, we don't call it social justice, and we don't think it will prove a solid source of substantial revenue."

David Cameron has a big speech to give on Sunday at the Tory Spring Forum in Cheltenham.  Perhaps Mr Parris could write it for him?

Tim Montgomerie

182 comments for: Is George Osborne’s caution an electoral tactic or part of his DNA?

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