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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

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

0800 7318496