During the MPs’ expenses scandal, those who work in jobs for which expenses are never claimed were, on the whole even more outraged than those who work in jobs for which they sometimes are. Some of this former group simply didn’t understand – and sometimes want to understand – the concept of expenses. They weren’t just angry at MPs flipping properties or claiming for for moat maintenance or putting in for duck houses: they simply didn’t understand why MPs could claim expenses at all.
Something like this is happening over David Cameron’s personal finances and tax payments. As Mark Wallace noted on this site earlier this week, tax avoidance is configured like a rainbow. At one end lies the kind that the Government actually encourages us to do, such as the new Lifetime ISA, which rewards people for saving by enabling them to avoid tax on money saved in that vehicle. At the other is the straightforward criminality of an African dictator or Russian strongman plundering his people and stashing the loot offshore. And somewhere in between is activity which may be legal but is immoral – the category that the last Cameron-led government labelled “aggressive tax avoidance”.
None the less, lots of people persist in seeing all avoidance as evasion. Many of them have doubtless never filled in a tax return themselves, let alone employed an accountant to do so. Still others have, although they somehow do not themselves feel obliged to maximise the tax they pay to the Treasury. Others yet see evasion and avoidance as a black and white matter, with the first at one of the scale and the last at the other, and no grey ground in between – that ambiguous business of conduct that may be lawful but is scarcely moral. To many people in this group, moving money offshore is always evasion, even though it often isn’t.
The Prime Minister has a fully-operating pair of politicians’ antennae, and will have known all this well when he became Leader of the Opposition. There is no evidence that Blairmore Holdings, the company set up by his father to manage money for clients, was involved in tax evasion. It seems simply to have acted as an offshore investment fund. But Cameron will have known that in the minds of the groups of people I describe, this in itself would have been seen as dubious if not immoral if not criminal – and that, worse from a Conservative leader’s point of view, the image of an Etonian-educated rich boy being part-funded from offshore would have been toxic in the eyes of these voters.
And so, he says, he sold the stake of £31,500 that he and his family had held for shortly before he became Prime Minister in 2010. Cue outrage from the Guardian, which itself has a long and distinguished history of avoiding tax, and various Labour MPs – who will surely, before too long has passed, see the media swivel its searchlights on the party’s own better-off Parliamentarians and donors to search out whether any of them have ever salted money away offshore, or benefited from members of their family doing so, or have backers who so do. Guido Fawkes is already at work: see his items on Hilary Benn, Art Malik and Sadiq Khan.
One can argue that Cameron’s antennae let him down earlier, and that he should have got rid of his stake when he first became Leader of the Opposition. But public attitudes to offshore money then, pre-crash, were less sharply disapproving. It is certainly true that his politician’s sixth sense seems to have deserted him in the handling of claims about his father. The Prime Minister doesn’t always manage to keep his temper (which of us can fairly blame him for that?) and his original instinct may have been, when confronted with claims about a father that he loved, to tell the media to take a running jump.
A more likely explanation is that is the EU referendum is sapping his and Downing Street’s energy, focus and judgement – just as it did over Port Talbot last week, the threat to the future of which clearly caught the Government machine on the hop. On this site today, Bernard Jenkin argues that its decision to spend the best part of £10 million on propagating its Remain case is an outrageous abuse of taxpayers’ money which compromises civil service impartiality. We agree. But whether one does so or not, it is indisputable that, as far as Number 10 is concerned, the referendum is currently the only political game in town, dwarfing even May’s coming local and mayoral elections.
This was always bound to be so. Those who called for a referendum, as this site did, or offered one, as Cameron did, must recognise this. We have no complaint about the Prime Minister going full-out for a win in June: that’s what he’s bound to do. But he will recognise that the more he pushes for a win, the more party unity is tugged at and tested – and potentially pulled apart. For the Party’s good, not to mention his own, he needs mechanisms to try to cool the temperature when it gets heated. Hence our call for Michael Gove to be made Deputy Prime Minister, either formally or in effect, to help keep the Party’s temper and Government’s shape. Two-thirds of our Party member readers agree.
Were the Remain and Leave elements of the Party more involved in running the Government together, the temperature in Downing Street might just be a bit lower. Were this so, fewer mistakes might be made. And were this the case, Cameron himself might not have rushed out five different positions on the Blairmore Holdings saga in fewer days – over which, in itself, he appears to have done nothing wrong whatsoever, unless one somehow counts it a fault to have been born with a well-off, good and loving man as a father.