Gauke has left the Tories looking even more out-of-touch

"Cash-in-hand" payments are wrong but Gauke was the wrong person to say so.

With his declaration that it is "morally wrong" to pay tradesmen "cash-in-hand", Treasury minister David Gauke has managed to antagonise both the left and the right. For the left, Gauke's comments are a cynical attempt to distract attention from wealthy tax avoiders, for the right they are an illegitimate attempt to enforce morality.

Here's the offending statement in full:

Getting a discount with your plumber by paying cash in hand is something that is a big cost to the Revenue and means others have to pay more in tax. I think it is morally wrong. It is illegal for the plumber but it is pretty implicit in those circumstances that there is a reason why there is a discount for cash. That is a large part of the hidden economy.

Ignore for the moment that Gauke is a minister in a government that immorally reduced taxes for the richest, and it is hard to take issue with his comments. Either tax avoidance is morally wrong or it isn't. The difference between paying a plumber cash-in-hand and placing your earnings in a limited company (as Ken Livingstone did), is one of degree, not kind. One can argue, as some on the right do, that "tax efficiency" is neither illegal nor immoral, but that isn't the left's position.

What has already become clear this morning is that Gauke was the wrong person to deliver this message. As Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury, he is a member of a government that, at a time of austerity, has raised taxes on the poorest, while reducing them for the richest, and that has done all too little to combat prolific avoiders. The discovery that Gauke's wife is a tax avoidance lawyer, leaves him further exposed. Most voters will see his comments as further evidence that the "out-of-touch" Tories are determined to squeeze the little guy. First they came for you pasty, now they come for your plumber. The Treasury has already issued a clarification, stating that Gauke was answering a specific question, not outlining government policy. But with his comments now the subject of countless phone-in debates, the damage has already been done.

Treasury minister David Gauke said it was "morally wrong" to pay plumbers cash-in-hand. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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The buck doesn't stop with Grant Shapps - and probably shouldn't stop with Lord Feldman, either

The question of "who knew what, and when?" shouldn't stop with the Conservative peer.

If Grant Shapps’ enforced resignation as a minister was intended to draw a line under the Mark Clarke affair, it has had the reverse effect. Attention is now shifting to Lord Feldman, who was joint chair during Shapps’  tenure at the top of CCHQ.  It is not just the allegations of sexual harrassment, bullying, and extortion against Mark Clarke, but the question of who knew what, and when.

Although Shapps’ resignation letter says that “the buck” stops with him, his allies are privately furious at his de facto sacking, and they are pointing the finger at Feldman. They point out that not only was Feldman the senior partner on paper, but when the rewards for the unexpected election victory were handed out, it was Feldman who was held up as the key man, while Shapps was given what they see as a relatively lowly position in the Department for International Development.  Yet Feldman is still in post while Shapps was effectively forced out by David Cameron. Once again, says one, “the PM’s mates are protected, the rest of us shafted”.

As Simon Walters reports in this morning’s Mail on Sunday, the focus is turning onto Feldman, while Paul Goodman, the editor of the influential grassroots website ConservativeHome has piled further pressure on the peer by calling for him to go.

But even Feldman’s resignation is unlikely to be the end of the matter. Although the scope of the allegations against Clarke were unknown to many, questions about his behaviour were widespread, and fears about the conduct of elections in the party’s youth wing are also longstanding. Shortly after the 2010 election, Conservative student activists told me they’d cheered when Sadiq Khan defeated Clarke in Tooting, while a group of Conservative staffers were said to be part of the “Six per cent club” – they wanted a swing big enough for a Tory majority, but too small for Clarke to win his seat. The viciousness of Conservative Future’s internal elections is sufficiently well-known, meanwhile, to be a repeated refrain among defenders of the notoriously opaque democratic process in Labour Students, with supporters of a one member one vote system asked if they would risk elections as vicious as those in their Tory equivalent.

Just as it seems unlikely that Feldman remained ignorant of allegations against Clarke if Shapps knew, it feels untenable to argue that Clarke’s defeat could be cheered by both student Conservatives and Tory staffers and the unpleasantness of the party’s internal election sufficiently well-known by its opponents, without coming across the desk of Conservative politicians above even the chair of CCHQ’s paygrade.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.