AJ4PM Committee reconvenes

John Rentoul

78052580Johnson 79459c 300x199 AJ4PM Committee reconvenesAlan Johnson, the shadow chancellor, is certainly ruthless enough to have been prime minister. I detected an assertion of his authority while his leader was on paternity leave in his speech at the RSA on Thursday, about which I wrote in The Independent on Sunday today.

I also mentioned his more explicit rebuff to Ed Miliband in an interview in yesterday’s Times (pay wall). Johnson made clear to Rachel Sylvester and Alice Thomson that he did not share his leader’s enthusiasm for making the 50p-in-the-pound top income-tax rate permanent:

I am only backing 50p for the times we are in. It is not ideal; five years ago [we] wouldn’t have done it. Our policy has to be based on principles of fairness and what encourages people to do well.

He was also paraphrased as insisting that “he is actually an instinctive cutter” of public spending, which Peter Hoskin seemed to think significant – which it might be only because so many Labour politicians have given the impression that they want higher spending than is needed to achieve their goals.

So he made his point. Quick hit and retreat? Certainly not. He was on BBC1’s Politics Show today where he robustly restated his differences with Miliband on 50p and the graduate tax, and the split at the top of the Labour Party is leading BBC News online. It is worth reproducing the transcript at length:

Jon Sopel: You said in an interview yesterday, ‘I’m only backing the 50 pence tax rate for top earners for the times we’re in.’ That contradicts your leader.

Alan Johnson: Well I don’t know whether it does. I know there were a lot of things said during the leadership campaign.

Jon: Well I’ll tell you what – just so that people can compare and contrast and make their own judgement, your quote, ‘I’m only backing 50p tax rate for the times we were in,’ yesterday and Ed Miliband, during the campaign, ‘I would keep the 50p rate permanently. It’s not about reducing the deficit, it’s about fairness in our society and that’s why I’d keep the 50p tax rate.’ Had you spoken to him before you said that?

Johnson: Well, look, you have to separate what’s going on in a leadership contest where people say all kinds of things in terms of the cut and thrust of that campaign and where we stand now. I was also being asked my opinion on the 50p tax rate. It’s obviously something we’ll develop as we come to the next General Election. The point I was making is, we didn’t introduce the 50p tax rate five years ago and we might not see the need for a 50p tax rate in five years time, but it was very important, witness the fact the Conservatives have adopted it of course in their programme as well.

Jon: Mr Johnson, isn’t this a slightly extraordinary doctrine, that what you’re telling us to do is to disregard what the Leader says during a campaign, but only take notice of what the Shadow Chancellor says now?

Johnson: No. You have to accept that when you’re asked for  your opinion and Ed was asked for his opinion during the election campaign and he gave it, I was asked for my opinion yesterday, in terms of a new Shadow Cabinet coming together with a new leader we’ll sort these policies out and get to a position. In the meantime in a process of what, four weeks since we’ve had a new Shadow Cabinet in place, we haven’t worked out every dot and comma on every issue and we’ll do that.

Jon: Okay, what about on graduate tax, because you said that was a ridiculous idea during the leadership campaign and I saw in your speech you are now interested in looking further at it.

Johnson: Well I think what you have to look at is what’s happened in between. You’ve now got the Browne Report that actually moves away from what were the Dearing principles. I feel a certain paternal responsibility here. I took this legislation through. I took it through on the basis that graduates should make a contribution to their higher education and indeed the parties that opposed it at the time, both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats now support it. But they’ve gone past, way past us. They’re now saying graduates, they’ve withdrawn all funding for arts, humanities and social sciences. That means graduates pay the total cost of their higher education. That’s not our plans and that’s not what we intend to do …

Look, Ed has now appointed me as Shadow Chancellor and I’m very pleased to be part of his team and it’s the mark of the man actually that despite disagreements over some issues, yes, hold the front page, we had different views about some different things in the party and we’re going  to work through those. The Shadow Cabinet have made the decision that we will go through our policy process now looking at whether we can make a graduate tax work because we’re in a completely different position now than we were pre the Browne report and pre what this government are doing as a result of the Browne report.

Andrew Pierce: But when Shadow Chancellors and leaders disagree on something as fundamental as tax that’s not a very good recipe for good government, history is littered with Chancellors falling out with their leaders and Ed Miliband told me when I interviewed him for the Daily Mail not only was the 50p tax rate going to stay, he would consider changing the threshold so even more people  will pay it. Do you agree with that?

Johnson: Look, what I think  you have to bear in mind here is you’re absolutely right about disagreements between chancellors and leaders and they’ve happened from Macmillan, Thorneycroft and historically they’ve happened. What we’re talking about now is to people who have come into their positions. Ed has asked me to be in the Shadow Cabinet, we’re working through these issues on the graduate tax, on the 50p tax rate and we will provide of course a considered policy option at the right time. We’re not setting all our policies out now, we have to discuss those differences of opinion like mature people which is really a mindset that I think Ed has brought into the party that is I think commendable.

Jon: So  you are accepting there are differences of opinion then?

Johnson: Yes, of course. On the graduate tax a very big difference of opinion about that, but no difference in the circumstances we find ourselves in now where the issue is no longer the contribution that graduates make. It’s whether graduates should be paying the whole – for the whole of their higher education. I disagree with that fundamentally. That’s no part of the policy that I introduced.

Jackie Ashley: But Alan, how is it going to work? I see you’ve been appointed Ed’s enforcer, I assume he appointed you his enforcer, that everyone else in the Shadow Cabinet has to come through you before making an announcement, but are they going to say does Alan Johnson agree with this or does Ed Miliband agree with this? Who’s in charge?

Johnson: No, look, I think it’s normal for a Shadow  Chancellor and a Shadow Chief Sec to the Treasury to be looking at the comments our colleagues make to ensure that we’re not ratcheting up spending commitments in the future.  I don’t know who gave me title of ‘enforcer’ but that’s what a Shadow Chancellor does. I think when Ed appointed me as Shadow Chancellor in that sense he appointed me as enforcer. We have to have some discipline here and we will.   And so I don’t think that is any sign that there’s not a very very close relationship between me and Ed and a determination to sort out the differences of opinion as we come into this process. Everyone’s got their views about how we get back into government and there’s a variety of views in the Shadow Cabinet, all of which have to be talked through and discussed.

Photograph: Richard Pohle/The Times

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  • Ciaran Rehill

    Where does he stand on anonymity in rape cases? Why not have the Swedish example of anonymity for all involved? Actually lets give the U.K to Sweden to run, they seem to have abolished poverty and have a functioning democracy. Hej da!

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