Cameron's tax return isn't enough

The PM should also reveal his wealth and assets.

I noted last week that the decision by the London mayoral candidates to publish their tax returns had set an important precedent that other senior politicians would feel compelled to follow. Since then, George Osborne has said he is "very happy" to consider publishing ministers' tax returns and, now, David Cameron has followed his Chancellor's lead. A source tells the Daily Telegraph:

The Prime Minister is relaxed about the idea of the tax returns of senior Cabinet Ministers being published, but wants the opportunity to explore how this might work

But would Cameron's tax return be enough to satisfy the new demand for transparency? In a significant intervention, David Davis has rightly argued that any proposal should also cover the disclosure of wealth and assets:

This will induce the politics of envy – but if you are going to do it, you have got to cover everything: wealth, trusts, whether you are a beneficiary of trusts, whether you are going to inherit things.

If you want really to know about someone’s tax affairs you have to know about more than just someone’s tax return. You have to know their assets, the potential inheritances, if they are going to be the beneficiaries of upcoming trust funds – all those things.

Among other things, this would draw further attention to Cameron and Osborne's privileged status, an ever more sensitive issue since the abolition of the 50p tax rate. Osborne, for instance, owns a 15 per cent stake in his family's wallpaper company Osborne & Little and stands to inherit around £4m from a trust fund, while Cameron's wealth is estimated at £3.2m (excluding inheritance). Indeed, the latter once memorably admitted to the Times that he couldn't remember how many houses he owns.

Here's the full exchange:

So how many properties do you own? “I own a house in North Kensington which you’ve been to and my house in the constituency in Oxfordshire and that is, as far as I know, all I have.”

A house in Cornwall? “No, that is, Samantha used to have a timeshare in South Devon but she doesn’t any more.” And there isn’t a fourth? “I don’t think so – not that I can think of.” Please don’t say, “Not that I can think of.” “You might be… Samantha owns a field in Scunthorpe but she doesn’t own a house…”

The rest of the interview was punctuated with Cameron’s nagging anxiety about how this exchange was going to make him sound: “I was wondering how that will come across as a soundbite”; “‘Not that I can think of’ makes me sound… I am really worried about that…”; “I am still thinking about this house thing”; and his parting shot was: “Do not make me sound like a prat for not knowing how many houses I’ve got."

Davis, who recently observed that Cameron and his ministers ("very well turned out, well-fed") "look like they’re in a completely different world", will have his own motives for demanding greater transparency. Ever since he fought Cameron for the Conservative leadership in 2005, Davis has rarely missed an opportunity to contrast his humble background (he was raised on a council estate in Tooting) with that of the Eton-educated Cameron.

Cameron is "relaxed" about the idea of tax returns being published. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

0800 7318496