Huhne scorns tax breaks for married couples as “flag-waving”

Today’s Telegraph has an in-depth interview with the Lib Dems’ climate change and energy secretary Chris Huhne, in which he expertly steers the tightrope of punchily sticking up for party policy while sticking well within collective responsibility.

Somewhat bizarrely, both the BBC and the Torygraph are leading on the least contentious part of the interview, in which Chris points out that the Coalition will adjust economic policy according to circumstances and forecasts:

“I’ve never known one Treasury Red Book to be exactly like the last one. There is always a change. It is a bit like setting sail. If the wind changes, you have to tack about to get to [your destination]. Global growth could be either higher or lower. We just don’t know, and it’s not sensible, outside the Budget period, for governments to make speculations about what is going to happen.

“The right time to look at that Budget judgment is when we come up to the Budget in the spring. The key thing then is to look at things in the round and remember the overall objective is to stabilise and begin to reduce the public debt to GDP ratio.”

So far, so, erm, uncontentious. The same cannot be said for Chris’s disdain for married couple tax breaks, resurrected by David Cameron this week in response to the hostile reception in right-wing newspapers of the Government’s withdrawal of child benefit from high-rate taxpayers:

“It’s been put back on the agenda … I am very sceptical. [As with] all other issues, I’m quite happy to be open-minded and talk it through. But in the current circumstances, when we are very constrained in … terms of tax breaks, then I think we need to make sure that what we’re doing is real value for money and not flag waving. If it is just flag waving, then frankly it’s probably not something that the Government ought to be doing.”

Married couple tax breaks was, of course, one of those handful of issues on which the Lib Dems secured an ‘opt-out’ in the Coalition agreement, so Chris’s comments are not off-message. Still, there will be plenty of Tories not entirely happy with one of their totemic policies being scorned as ‘flag waving’ — and plenty of Lib Dems very happy to see Chris speak out.

Chris also flags up that this week’s move to strip away universal benefits from higher-rate taxpayers is unlikely to be restricted only to child benefit — the winter fuel allowance is also within the Government’s sights:

“We have a statutory duty to tackle fuel poverty. How does the winter fuel allowance fit into that? Is it a sensible approach, given that we have … very large numbers of people still in fuel poverty, and more if oil and gas prices go up?”

And he re-iterates the Lib Dems’ Trident scepticism:

“Given all the other bridges we have to cross, I don’t think we should gambol across that one years before we have to.”

You can read the interview in full here.

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  • Funny that even the guardian focuses on the Red Book comments – Which Huhne FIRST mentioned in a guardian fringe debate at the Lib Dem conference.

    (58 minutes in)

  • I think the media are focusing on the fact that the coalition are having to revise their economic plans because Clegg first objected to the ‘macho’ Tory cuts, then he changed his mind (apparently before the election but without telling the electorate) once he joined the coalition, now the coalition are rethinking the cuts. Clegg is very much giving the impression of a man who’ll say what he’s told to say but doesn’t have a mind of his own.

    This could have been spun as a victory for the Lib Dems, blunting the edge of Osborne’s axe and all that, but Clegg’s prevented that, and now both parties look like they don’t really know what they are doing.

  • matthew fox 9th Oct '10 - 5:23pm

    Chris Huhne doesn’t know what he is talking about. The Chancellor ” rates ” Huhne, probably in the same way England Fans rate Emile Heskey.

    This deficit plan is one way ticket to a economic depression, and a noose around the Lib Dems neck.

  • Chris is absolutely right. It’s flag waving that Cameron set in motion because he wobbled badly when the right wing press lost their minds over Child Benefit.

    The problem is the Child Benefit announcenment is also flag waving.
    This time from Cameron in an effort to detoxify the Conservatives brand and while he hopes he can point to this when the cuts are decimating the country. If the Child Benefit change for those over $44,000 came in this year he might have a point. Albiet a small one when you consider that the average wage in Britain is 25k. And that this clawback of a Billion is as nothing compared to the hardship that will be visited on the poorest and most vulnerable in society when the £15 Billion in welfare cuts are introduced. Since the Child Benefit change is not going to come in for 3 years Cameron can hardly claim “we’re all in it together” when he treats those over £44,000 with kid gloves but is about to visit untold havoc on the public sector and the poor.

    Chris’s Trident response was overdue, welcome but a trifle half hearted as Liam Fox and other Conservative hawk MPs aren’t waiting to get the okay from Cameron before daring to broach the subject as Nick always seems to do.

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