In the middle of the week, Mr Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, announced that he was not "ideologically wedded" to retaining the 50p upper rate of income tax. Concerned Vince watchers were put on immediate alert.
Mr Cable is one of those few politicians whose stern and unbending antipathy towards the better-off has survived unscathed not only the Thatcherite loadsamoney terror but also the years of occupation by the Blair-Mandelson regime with its ruthless pro-yacht convictions. Working during these years in undercover roles of increasing obscurity and oppression - as adviser to the late John Smith, in the economics department at Shell and finally as a backbench Liberal Democrat MP - Cable came out towards the end of the last decade, when he was, as he likes repeatedly to remind us, the first person to warn that the rich were buggering the country up. When such a man tells us that it isn't necessarily axiomatic that the well-heeled should have half their income confiscated by the Inland Revenue, it is time to take notice and to reach for his pills.
By the weekend, however, the alarm had passed. Mr Cable was restored to full health and to normal service, launching one of his trademark attacks upon the Tories for the benefit of the Party's Spring Conference gathering in Newcastle. It is often supposed that Mr Cable unleashes these sallies specifically for the benefit of the party faithful who, in these grim coalition days, haven't much left to be faithful to, except the belief that Vince hates the Conservatives even more than they do. This, however, is to misunderstand the man, for the Business Secretary needs no crowd of fellow-travellers to serve as mirror for his wrath. Put Mr Cable in charge of agriculture and you would soon enough find him declaiming upon the infamy of Sir Alec Douglas-Hume to a flock of sheep.
In any case, close examination of Mr Cable's comments on the 50p rate suggests that any ideological wavering was unrelated to lack of intent that the rich should be more heavily taxed and concerned only the best means of doing so. He might as well have said that he was no longer determined that it had to be the rope for investment bankers, so long as policy was flexible enough to retain the option of the electric chair.
Mr Cable, as we know, favours a mansion tax - or, as it is known in parts of London, an end-of-terrace tax - on the principle that rich people can employ accountants to hide their income, but not their houses. That rich people might have recourse to other professional support - architects, say, or mechanical engineers - to help them conceal their residences from the revenue man seems not to have occurred to his hawklike brain. Indeed, one assumes that the trend, now being witnessed in west London in particular, for the well-off to create vast subterranean bunkers to house their swimming pools and personal cinemas is all part of an elaborate mansion tax avoidance scam. One imagines anthropologists of the future scratching their heads and wondering what it was about early 21st century existence that caused bankers, professional footballers and advertising executives to live among themselves in an endless scheme of underground burrows.
Mr Cable is not alone among Liberal Democrats in yearning for different ways to tax the wealthy. Nick Clegg, who has never seemed particularly enamoured of the mansion tax idea, perhaps because it is Mr Cable's idea, has come up with a different wheeze called a tycoon tax, which would set a "legally binding minimum" rate of impost for the aforementioned tycoons. This idea is subtly different from a typhoon tax, favoured by fiscal disciplinarians at the Met Office, though what other distinctive features it might possess are bafflingly vague. It appears to be a proposition whose principle benefit in Mr Clegg's mind is that it is different from what Mr Cable wants. On that basis it may well be saleable to Conservatives in the coalition, though not, presumably to tycoons (the two are not quite an exact match).
All of this unseemingly squabbling over the best way to play Robin Hood has led the Guardian to declare that the Lib Dems are "at war" over tax policy - a beautifully paradoxical idea - and for someone from within the Party's ranks to declare that Mr Clegg is making up policy "on the hoof". This is entirely unfair. On the hoof policy making is David Cameron's prerogative within the coalition, for which purposes the facilities can be leant to him via an intermediary by the Metropolitan Police.
Mr Cameron and George Osborne are also reported to be divided - and for all we know at war - over the issue of the 50p tax rate. Mr Osborne, it is said, thinks it will make Britain more attractive to entrepreneurs if the rate goes, or at least if it is reduced. Mr Cameron, however, wants the Tories to be thought of as nice people, for which purposes high taxes for high earners are held to be essential.
The prime minister himself has few ideas for attracting entrepreneurs to these shores, unless they happen to be gay, in which case he proposes that they should be allowed to marry one other. This is a shameless pitch upon Mr Cameron's part for the gay vote, which may or may not turn out to be electorally-sound. Certainly it would appear that the Conservative Party is disdaining its traditional strength in the bigot vote; no doubt polling data known to the prime minister's boffins in Number 10 show this once-rich seam not to be what it was.
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