PMQs: Nick tackles Gordon on fairness in the tax system

Clegg’s main question today to Brown was simple and broad: a Labour government had the opportunity in the Pre-Budget Report to make the tax system fairer. The Chancellor mentioned fairness eight times during his speech – why did they blow it?

Brown replied in the usual vein, citing increases in the various hand-outs – child benefit, child tax credit, pensions etc – which Clegg then rightly identified as a “list rather than an answer”. He also directly contradicted Clegg on the latter’s assertion that the VAT cut would help big spenders rather than hard-pressed “families” (I can’t bring myself to omit the speech marks from that word, since it is used by Cameron, Brown and Clegg alike to mean something it doesn’t mean, to wit, people).

Brown’s told Clegg that he “should understand” that the VAT cut would indeed help hard-pressed “families”, which is such a baldly cretinous thing to say that one could only get away with it sans uproar in a room full of people earning over sixty grand. The VAT cut is incredibly useful for people buying, say, a plasma TV or a new kitchen, but of no use whatsoever to people whose expenditure has already been stripped back to food (VAT exempt), petrol (duty has gone up) and not much else. It’s when Brown says things like this that one collects with full force that no, he isn’t an evil genius at all. The 10p tax thing wasn’t really the act of an evil genius either. He just genuinely doesn’t have a clue.

Clegg called the PBR a betrayal, pointing out that it had been an opportunity for “big, permanent and fair” tax cuts for lower and middle earners, and the removal of abuses like the extra tax relief enjoyed by higher-rate earners on their pension contributions. Brown responded with the astonishing allegation that the Labour party is the party of fairness (10p! 10p!), and asserted that cutting [sic] £20 billion from public spending is not fair. Again, the form of words he had adopted from Clegg’s question throws light on his beliefs: he believes fairness is something that can only come about as a result of state expenditure.

Clegg also prefaced his first question with an expression of horror and sympathy for the victims of the Sheffield abuse case (as a Sheffield MP). Brown answered this point as well as the main tax question, rather over-fully if anything, and said that a Serious Case Review (as in the case of Baby P) was being carried out.

Where Clegg asked the broad question, Cameron had asked the detail question (they occasionally form an unlikely but effective double act) about the revelation that ministers had considered raising VAT. He tried to make out over the course of his six questions that there was still a secret plan to raise VAT, that it wasn’t just an idea that had been abandoned during discussion of the PBR.  I thought Brown’s response here was interesting: he ran through the Conservatives’ own history of raising VAT. That’s something they do, was the implication, and we rejected it. Now, is this an utter muddle centred on a document that shouldn’t have been leaked, or is this Labour spiking a gun for the Tories? If the latter get in, they’re going to be the poor sods raising taxes. A malevolently minded Labour government might just as well spend its dying years pouring further poison into the already toxic chalice of British government. If the Tories do go for a VAT hike, Labour will now be able to point to their own refusal to countenance such a plan.

Incidentally, John McFall asked a question echoing Clegg’s question from last week about the need to get banks lending, or as he put it, to “get them [the bankers] into a room and collectively and simultaneously ensure” that they begin lending some of the £37bn they were given, as a matter of social obligation and economic imperative. Brown responded with general assurances that the government was talking to the banks.

Full text, when it’s up, will be here.

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