By Paul Goodman
Follow Paul on Twitter
Now I know that the party conference season has begun, and that one must therefore be even more suspicious of being spun than usual, but two stories in this morning's papers are a reminder that the great tax debate is very live.
Vince Cable has given an interview to the Sunday Times in which he says that he wants to make it easier for shareholders to prevent salary increases:
"He claims British companies have a “particular problem” with exorbitant pay and says shareholders need to step in. “The performance of companies has not demonstrably improved, yet people are being paid an awful lot more. There’s something happening that isn’t right,” he said. Cable said: “We wouldn’t want to fix salaries; it is not practical. The other route is to try to influence companies directly through their shareholders — getting the shareholders to be more active in influencing pay. We will in due course be setting out exactly how.”
And Danny Alexander will announce today that wealthy individuals who are avoiding the 50p tax rate will be targeted by extra government inspectors, according to the Independent on Sunday:
"Mr Alexander said that one hundred of the new investigators would form an "affluence team" to crack down on the mega-rich – the 350,000 people in the UK whose personal wealth is more than £2.5m. He said: "We are keeping up the pressure on tax evasion and tax avoidance, on making sure that those with the broadest shoulders bear their fair share of the burden." He said the clampdown on tax avoidance…would target "particularly people who might be eligible to pay tax at the 50p rate".
I can't see George Osborne being distressed by these two particular measures – after all, he recently struck a deal with Switzerland over what he described as tax evasion – but many Conservatives will feel a sense of unease. Some will read the moves as a signal that the Government is set to keep the 50p rate, and is more interested in trying to raise revenues through special measures than by cutting rates.
It could be that the opposite is the case: that the Chancellor's Swiss gambit and Alexander's revenue-gathering move are a cover, and that the top rate will indeed be scrapped in 2013. But Nick Clegg's Independent interview yesterday was a reminder not that he's clinging to keeping the rate – read the final sentences carefully – but that the Liberal Democrats seem prepared to swap the 50p rate for land, property or wealth taxes. Chris Huhne has set the same signal.
In other words, we seem to have stalemate. Osborne, I'm sure, won't allow new taxes on the better-off without some action on the 50p rate. The Liberal Democrats want the reverse. And they have at their disposal the stubborn persistence of belief that Tories are the party for the rich. I appreciate that the new fashion is for higher taxes on richer people, but remain convinced that these would do nothing to help poorer ones.