By Paul Goodman
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Cameron's Jimmy Carr dilemma…
When David Cameron decided to pronounce on Jimmy Carr's tax affairs, he knew that both an academic question and practical consequences would follow. The academic question is: so how much tax should Mr Carr pay, then – what proportion of his income? 20%, the standard rate of income tax? Or, since Mr Carr is doubtless be at least as well off as a senior nurse or teacher (cough), 40%? He could thus join the one in four people who may pay this rate by the time the Prime Minister faces the electorate, as opposed to the one in seven or so people who pay it now. Or perhaps Mr Carr should simpy go the whole hog and cough up 45%, the top rate? (Apologies: I mean 50%, which of course is what it should be if the evil Tories had not insisted on cutting it.) Or perhaps it would be best simply to let Polly Toynbee decide.
Mr Cameron has of course far too practical a mind to be bothered by such a question and is far too smooth a hand to be caught out by it. He knew exactly what he was doing: by saying that Mr Carr's use of the K2 tax avoidance scheme is "morally wrong" (we have a new meaning for "the ascent of K2"), that it is "very dodgy" and that "as soon as I get in front of a computer I will look at it", he understands well – none better – that he is providing journalists with a new incentive to go after party donors and supporters who may be using similar schemes. But he also believes that when it comes to tax, his testicles are caught in a Catch 22 – a position which may be physically challenging but is psychologically possible, at least in this case.
…To speak out or keep quiet
He will have calculated that while he risks this further damage to the party's brand by condemning Mr Carr, he also risks such damage by not doing so – allowing Ed Miliband to outmanoevre him by getting there first, just as he himself outmanoevered Gordon Brown by getting there first over the Commons expenses scandal. Worse, he would have permitted Nick Clegg and his coalition partners, those moral exemplars, to do so too – thus permitting the one evil that must under no circumstances be countenanced: "re-contaminating the brand". As so often, the Prime Minister's calculation is tactical rather than strategic, and I have every sympathy with his dilemma. He knows better than anyone the risks to which the party's reputation is exposed in the Age of Austerity – "posh boys", horse rides, wedding tails, country suppers and all.
For this is not the Age of Thatcher in which the rich were seen as like us, only better off. They are now increasingly viewed as not like us, if not actually responsible for our plight – either foreign plutocrats with no stake in the common weal or, worse, bankers whose losses at the casino we are paying for, in the Eurozone as well as here. This is an evil time for people like Mr Carr. Even his previous claim of voting Labour will not, I'm afraid, protect him from the righteousness of the mob. In Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar", a man called Cinna is caught with the wrong name in the wrong place at the wrong time. "Tear him to pieces! He's a conspirator!" cries the throng, confusing him with one of Caesar's assassins. He protests: "I am Cinna the poet. I am Cinna the poet." Back comes the cry: "Tear him for his bad verses! Tear him for his bad verses!"
"I am Carr the Comedian! I am Carr the Comedian!"…
As it was for Cinna, so it is for Mr Carr. "Tear him to pieces! He's a tax avoider!" "I am Carr the Comedian." "Tear him for his bad jokes!" (Not to mention his hypocrisy in cracking them about the tax avoidance of others.) Poor old Cinna comes to a sticky end: "Exeunt plebians dragging Cinna the Poet". Does the Prime Minister ever wonder – pale and fretful during the witching hour – whether they will one day haul him from Downing Street in similar circumstances? ("Come, brands, ho, firebrands! To Cameron's, to Osborne's, burn all! Some to Hague's house and some to Sir George Young's! Some to Hugo Swire's! Away, go!") If so, Mr Cameron may whisper a defence to the midnight demons: it is simply wrong for Mr Carr to exploit schemes that allegedly allow those who use them to pay tax rates as low as one per cent.
There is certainly something bad about Mr Carr seeking to avoid lots of tax when so many poorer people have no choice but to pay up. The problem is that there would be something even worse about the consequences of him trying to force him to pay a fixed share of his income – a point spectacularly proved by the Treasury's post-budget U-turn about tax relief for charities. (Readers will remember that the original plan which Mr Osborne proposed was yet another product of the Curse of Clegg – the proposed Tycoon Tax, trailed in advance as a "victory" for the Deputy Prime Minister.) And the moral arguments are by no means clear-cut. There is no obligation on anyone to maximise the amount of income they pay in tax – a point which Ms Toynbee's employers, the Guardian, long ago conceded in relation to its own affairs (in practice, anyway).
…Tear him for his bad jokes! Tear him for his bad jokes!
Or, as Mr Carr has put it, turning on his pursuers like some stag at bay*: "I pay all I have to, not a penny more." That some of those who criticise him are no less hypocritical than he has been is beside the main point – which, for our purposes, is that the Conservative cause is in a very bad place on tax. "People work hard, they pay their taxes, they save up to go to one of his shows. They buy the tickets," pleaded Cameron the Poet yesterday, in what sounded remarkably like an attempt to stay on the plebians' sweet side. He is in a poor position from which to tell the mob to get lost – or, as Mrs Thatcher put it in language which today has the bracing shock of a cold shower, that a man has "the right to work as he will, to spend what he earns, to own property, to have the state as servant and not as master".
It is hard enough to simplify the tax system, thus minimising incentives for avoidance, at the best of times. The deficit and debt make it even harder, as those budget VAT retreats remind us. And the deep tax cuts Britain needs are impossible – unless one is either a reductionist supply sider or a public spending hawk. The latter have the best of the argument, which is why Mr Cameron should "get in front of a computer" to plan a Better Spending Commission. All this renders the task of persuading voters that the party stands for compassionate conservatism even more of an uphill climb, given the association of social justice with public spending by many voters. This mission will be rendered even more hazardous if Jimmy Carr, martyr to socialism, cunningly takes the best revenge possible on the Prime Minister…namely, joining the Conservative Party.
Yes, perhaps Mr Carr's defiance* indicates that he is "on a journey", as Michael Portillo's admirers used reverently to say about their man. This would stretch Mr Cameron's talents for reputation management. And be a better joke than any I'm aware of Mr Carr ever having made.
8.45am update: *Alas, I spoke too soon. Cinna the Comedian has just climbed down, not that it stopped him getting scragged. He abhors himself; he repents in dust and ashes. But perhaps that party membership form still waits on his desk…