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Thursday 26 March 2015, Rob Lyons

VAT’s going on with British politics?

Yesterday's tit-for-tat over tax shows just how little choice the general election offers us.

The final session of Prime Minister’s Questions of this parliament was all about firing the starting pistol on the election campaign. Labour leader Ed Miliband chose to use the occasion to put pressure on the prime minister, David Cameron, on one of Labour’s two big accusations that it aimed to level at the Tories: that a Conservative government would raise value added tax (VAT) after the election. Would Cameron give a straight answer to Miliband’s question? Would he rule out raising VAT?

Clearly, Cameron pays good money for his advisers and was waiting for the question, even if he appeared to make a bit of a mess of answering it. ‘He’s right, straight answers deserve straight questions, and the answer’s yes.’ As any good trial lawyer would tell you (and should have told Ed), don’t ask a question unless you already know the answer, and Miliband was clearly wrong-footed. And just to drive the point home, Cameron then turned the tables by demanding that Miliband rule out a rise in National Insurance contributions. ‘This is Labour’s jobs tax, this is their tax of choice, this is what they clobber working people, families, enterprises with.’

Miliband had no answer. But never fear, the shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, popped up hours later to confirm that Labour would not raise National Insurance.

If anything perfectly illustrated the narrowness of mainstream British politics today, it was this exchange: the two biggest parties slugging it out to ensure that there is no difference between them by polling day. Their spending plans are likely to be very similar, they have both ruled out most of the obvious ways to raise tax, they both think immigration needs to be controlled, and so on. Based on the two parties most likely to govern after 7 May, this is a choice between Coke and Pepsi, between Ariel and Persil, between two entirely interchangeable brands that will do much the same thing.

As an antidote to the next few weeks of nit-picking misery, we’ll be running our State of the Nation debates in conjunction with our forums and our network of salons, from a major public debate on what next for the UK economy in London to discussions on voter apathy in Birmingham and Islamist radicalisation in Leeds. Watch this space for more details.

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