Prime Minister Boris Johnson will widen the inequality between Wales and London

Boris Johnson. Picture by Annika Haas (CC BY 2.0)

Patrick O’Brien

Average pay in Ceredigion hovers around £24,000. But put that to the county’s legions of workers on zero-hours contracts, or to those aged below 25 denied even the food-bank-level £8.21 national living wage, and you’ll deserve the short shrift you’ll doubtlessly get.

Many of the struggling, including apprentices on the cripplingly low official £3.90 current rate, or 18-to-20-year-olds trying against the odds to squeeze a living from £6.15 an hour, are condemned to eking out a semi-existence on less than half that average.

While through it all, we on the whole continue tacitly to endorse the inference that a bag of food or a month’s rent somehow, through a process unexplained, costs less the younger you are.

Confirmation of the plight of the low-paid in Ceredigion and other parts of west Wales and the Valleys comes in research by the European campaigning think-tank CPMR, which reveals the worst inequality in the whole of the UK, by a very wide margin, is between this region and Inner London, the UK’s richest area, a discrepancy it describes as “particularly striking and a unique case in Europe”.

But perhaps don’t bother mentioning this to Boris Johnson, the worryingly self-obsessed Old Etonian who has never grown up but who may yet be delivered to Number 10 by a spellbound Tory membership rendered weak at the knees by the man they foolishly hero-worship as a toff and a bit of a rogue.

So, has the news that police were called to a rumpus at the south London home of Johnson and his partner, Carrie Symonds, made any meaningful difference to his chances of being elected party leader, and thus prime minister?

Of course it hasn’t. But let’s nevertheless hope that, somehow, before it’s too late, it will dawn on Conservative members that the man they drool over is no more than a shallow entertainer who manifestly cares for little but his own fame and gratification.

If, on the other hand, these Tory activists most living in the south of England, one-in-10 with incomes over £100,000 – do go ahead and back him that could be very bad news for Wales as a whole, and for the struggling rural west in particular.

Struggling

For of course Johnson has made clear he would like to see the earnings threshold for people in the higher, 40 per cent, tax-band raised from £50,000 to £80,000, a measure which would cost £9.6bn a year.

And one which, Cardiff University economist Guto Ifan has calculated, could lead to a £460m reduction in the money available for Welsh public sector spending through the Barnett formula block grant, which determines how much Treasury money comes to Wales – and to Northern Ireland and Scotland.

Calculated on a regional basis, that could leave Ceredigion, Carmarthenshire, Powys and Gwynedd with about £80m a year less to spend on public services – a neat way to rub salt in the wound of an area where so many people are already struggling in the face of absurdly low incomes.

It would be unrealistic to think other than that Johnson’s proposal has absolutely everything to do with sucking up to Tory members with the voting power to make him PM. Many of them would benefit from such a tax-break, as would all MPs.

Analysis by the Resolution Foundation think-tank found that someone paid £80,000 a year would see their tax bill fall by £3,000; MPs would gain £2,946. It would take an 18-to-20-year-old in Ceredigion on the minimum wage more than three months to earn that.

Yet a YouGov poll last week found that more than 60 per cent of Tory party members are so ready to accept a no-deal Brexit they would be prepared to see “significant damage to the UK economy” as a result.

Resolution is right to describe Johnson’s plan as “the most regressive” tax policy to have been proposed by any of the leadership contenders. His cosy little scheme also underlines how important it is that Wales keeps pushing for the Welsh government to have control over income tax band thresholds, a power already granted Scotland.

The Johnson tax concession would, in fact, be the latest episode in a financial horror saga faced by a region already reeling at the prospect of vast losses of EU aid – more than £79.5m in the case of Ceredigion alone – as a result of Brexit.

Yet this newest potential setback is in a class of its own, representing as it does an outlandish assault on democracy. For there could hardly be a more contemptible affront to the electoral system than that a vanishingly tiny 0.35 per cent of the UK’s 46.1m voters – that’s the extent of the 160,000 Conservative party members should alone be handed the power to choose the next prime minister.

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