How to avoid a straight answer, in three easy steps

Senior Tories are still reluctant to clarify Lord Ashcroft's tax status.

Oh dear. The big question mark over Lord Ashcroft's tax status doesn't seem to be going away. With formal requests currently in motion for the big-time donor's status to be clarified, journalists have been pushing senior Tories for a straight answer.

The Information Commissioner has condemned their "evasive and obfuscatory" responses, but still the finely crafted answers that could be straight out of a political satire come thick and fast. It sounds like Conservative HQ is administering some serious media training.

Rule one: deflect from the specifics to the general -- in this case, answer questions on Lord Ashcroft's tax status with a general statement on Tory policy. Rule two: say something confusing, or try to turn the argument on its head. Rule three: if those fail, claim ignorance.

For these rules in action, listen to Sir George Young, shadow leader of the Commons, on BBC Radio 4's Today programme this morning (ironically, he was criticising the "grey area" of parliamentary privilege).

Question: Of course there's one big question that hangs over your party, doesn't it, which relates your deputy chairman Michael Ashcroft, and what his tax status really is. What are the conditions that were applied when he was awarded a life peerage?

George Young: On the question of tax status, there was an all-party amendment on Tuesday to the corporate governance and constitution bill that's now going through, that makes it clear that, as from next year, anybody in the House of Lords is deemed to be domiciled for tax purposes. I hope that resolves the issue. They'll all have to pay tax like they were you or me.

Q: But it's still quite interesting to know what the man financing a lot of the election campaign activities -- what his status is?

GY: I think his total funding since the last election is about 5 per cent of the Tory party.

Q: That's a considerable amount of funding to come from one individual, isn't it? Conditions were applied to him, as I understand it, when he became a life peer, that he was resident for tax in the UK. Is that your understanding of it?

GY: My understanding is that there is, at the moment, a Freedom of Information request to the Cabinet Office, to clarify exactly what the undertakings were. I think one has to let that take its course.

Q: Wouldn't it be better for your deputy chairman to just tell us what the conditions were, rather than digging around in the Cabinet Office? He's perfectly free to tell us, isn't he?

GY: Well I think that's a matter for Lord Ashcroft rather than for me to clarify.

Q: He's your deputy chairman. It's a party matter!

GY: But it's an undertaking which he gave to another body and that body has been asked for documents. I don't know what those documents contain. We have to wait for the Freedom of Information process to complete its course. I'm sorry, but I just can't shed any light on this.

The Tory shadow foreign secretary William Hague's performance on the Andrew Marr Show yesterday was no less controlled. Note the specific-to-general transition, and the attempt to turn the heat on to the opposition.

Andrew Marr: The Information Commissioner says that "statements by senior politicians concerning Lord Ashcroft's undertaking" -- that's on tax -- "have been evasive and obfuscatory". Now can you, therefore, tell me whether or not he pays tax in this country?

William Hague: Well, let me give you something that's not at all evasive and obfuscatory. David Cameron has called, and the government have then come into line with that, for all members of both Houses of Parliament to be treated as if they're fully resident and domiciled in the United Kingdom for tax purposes -- with no ifs and buts whatsoever -- from the next financial year. Lord Ashcroft has said that causes him no difficulty at all, and that he will still be sitting there in the House of Lords under those rules . . .

AM: . . . You gave a very, very clear statement about your policy. You didn't give quite such a clear statement to the question: does he pay tax as a British taxpayer, as a British citizen? Which is a very straightforward question.

WH: Well, I'll give you another clear statement, which is that when he was made a peer in the year 2000, he was asked to give certain guarantees about that and he then implemented those guarantees -- and he's assured me that he did. Although what they were in detail was defined between him and the Inland Revenue at the time. I am not a party to that any more than the --

AM (over): But he's a very key figure.

WH: -- Labour Party is a party to all those people in the House of Lords, some of whom are non-domiciled and so on, but who give donations to the Labour Party.

They're not budging. But the clock is ticking -- on 1 February, the Cabinet Office was ordered to reveal within 35 days the nature of the undertaking Ashcroft made regarding tax in the UK when he became a peer in 2000. Roll on, 8 March!

 

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Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Tim Farron: We must not let racists hijack the EU referendum result

The Liberal Democrat leader says in an IPPR speech that "Britain is better" than "Farage, Le Pen and their ilk". 

Like so many people, I felt shocked and emotional about the result of the vote on 23 June.
 
I know many people who wept at the news.
 
I can understand that.​
 
Not because I love the specific institutions of the European Union, but because I feel European.
 
I also feel British. And English.
 
And northern.  And I don’t feel any conflict between those identities, in fact they reinforce each other.
 
But the result seemed to throw this balance into doubt.
 
And yes, I also felt angry.
 
I still feel angry now, but perhaps for a different reason.
 
Because never in recent history have we, in the political classes, let down the people of this country so disastrously.
 
And I make no distinction here between those who voted to Remain and those who voted to Leave.
 
They were battered with dodgy statistics. From both sides.
 
They were lied to.
 
On both sides too – though it is the NHS and the £350 million that particularly sticks in the throat.
 
And worse than that.
 
They were misled by lackadaisical politicians, playing games, who had campaigned for years to leave the EU – but hadn’t bothered to come up with a plan about what to do if it happened.
 
We, the political classes, have left a country bitterly divided as a result.
 
Between parents and children, families, neighbours.
 
Between the nations of our own union, who have worked and fought together for centuries.
 
Between us and our continental neighbours.
 
And now the biggest danger of them all.
 
That because of those divisions, we are in danger of letting malevolent forces hijack the result.
 
Plenty of my mates voted leave and I can tell you that the overwhelming majority of those who did vote leave are utterly appalled that Farage, Le Pen and their ilk now seek to claim the result as a victory for their hateful brand of intolerance, racism and insularity.  Britain is better than that.
 
But I’m not so blinded by those emotions that I don’t see the new divisions that are opening up between us.
 
New political boundaries which chop the old certainties of Tory and Labour into little pieces.
 
Because there’s a new battle emerging.
 
Between the forces of tolerant liberalism and intolerant, closed-minded nationalism.
 
And, of course, you know that, as leader of the Liberal Democrats, which side I’m on.
 
But I also know what side most people in this country are on too.
 
In the 48 per cent and also in the 52 per cent.
 
So let’s be clear about this.
 
I am absolutely committed to the cause of an open-minded, open-hearted United Kingdom.
 
United in every sense of the word.
 
Because, as Jo Cox said, we have more in common with each other in this country than what divides us. 
 
And, yes, I campaigned my heart out to stay a member of the European Union. And would do again given the chance.
 
But a nation divided against itself can’t stand.
 
Nor can it hammer out a way forward from the current impasse.
 
And our combined history cries out for some more inspiring political leadership.
 
Which can say that, in or out, we remain an open-minded, outward-looking nation.
 
Which can say, in or out, we will be European and British and from our own towns, villages and cities.
 
And be proud of all of them.
 
Which can say to those from other countries who have committed their lives alongside us in the UK: we will stand by you, no matter what.
 
Let me just say that again.
 
We will stand by you.
 
As we stood by each other across Europe in the Second World War.
 
We will stand by you, who have chosen British communities to live in.
 
Not only that but we need you.
 
If the tens of thousands of people who make it possible to run our schools and health service were to worry about our commitment to them...
 
So much so that it threatens their commitment to us...
 
It would seriously undermine services that are used by some of the most vulnerable people in this country.
 
The Conservative and Labour parties may have so forgotten themselves that they’ve missed this urgent consideration.
 
But we haven’t.
 
So I make this absolute promise.
 
To use what power we can muster, to make sure that those who have committed their lives and families to this country will be protected.
 
That no kneejerk populism will be allowed to threaten them or uproot them.
 
And I ask now all the many candidates for high positions in Westminster to join me in this undertaking.
 
I don’t just say this as the leader of a political party.
 
I don’t just commit my own party to this.
 
I speak as a Member of Parliament in one of the most open-hearted nations on earth.
 
I speak as a proud citizen of this country.
 
We will not stand by to let Nigel Farage or Marine Le Pen dictate our policy, our direction, or our morality.
 
So, yes, I campaigned to remain.  I’ll carry on campaigning to remain.
 
But we have gone beyond June’s referendum now.
 
There are more fundamental, more urgent issues that we must face today.
 
Existential issues about our nation.
 
About what they’re saying about us in the rest of the planet.
 
The newspapers.
 
The investors.
 
About protecting neighbours and friends born in other countries from hate.
 
So, yes, I recognise and understand the motivations of many of those who voted the other way to me.
 
I’m a white, working class, middle aged, northern male.  By voting remain, I pretty much confounded the predicted behaviour my demographic might suggest!  And for once it put me at odds with lots of the people I grew up with. 
 
Who are as proud as I am about the same things I’m proud of in our country.
 
I understand their fears for their own communities.
 
I completely get why being talked down to by Cameron and Osborne, threatened with a ‘punishment budget’ might push even the most internationalist person to vote leave! 
 
And nobody ever said the European Union was perfect. Least of all me.
 
Its aspiration of peace and co-operation in Europe is vitally important.
 
It still is.
 
But I’m aware that the reality of the EU can often be inflexible.
 
I understand that people’s liberal commitment to local communities, which I absolutely share, sometimes led them to vote differently to me.
 
I understand those who voted for Brexit and their frustration about the way that the big banks were allowed to torpedo the economy.
 
And torpedo so many people’s lives.
 
Without sanction. Without even a loss of bonuses.
 
While those who have tried to make a more tangible contribution their whole lives, have been sidelined, bullied and left behind.
 
I understand that, possibly better than any other leader.  Because whilst South Lakeland voted remain, it was the only place in Lancashire or Cumbria that did.  And I grew up in and I belong to the very part of British society that most heavily voted leave. 
 
And yes I understand their fears that their communities have been changed. Maybe even overwhelmed.
 
Not so much to satisfy Brussels, but specifically to reduce the wages of the big food manufacturers. 
 
Or the cleaning contractors.
 
Or the care homes.
 
Because what June’s vote did reveal, above everything else, is how angry people have become.
 
And though we might argue about the reasons for it, their anger is justified.
 
We have banking institutions that have let them down, suffocating their businesses.
 
We have an economic policy that favours the rich over everyone else, middle class, working class alike.
 
We have a housing crisis that’s consuming our children.
 
We have a Treasury so cut off from reality that they urged people not to vote for Brexit – because it might mean property prices would rise more slowly.
 
As if people weren’t struggling now to get a foot on the housing ladder.
 
To help their children scrape enough together to rent a place of their own.
 
We have people treated like cattle with zero-hour contracts.
 
We have those who worked as pillars of their community all their lives...
 
Running small businesses.
 
Managing farms...
 
Making a difference...
 
Only to see themselves gazumped by salaries ten or a hundred times as much by cash-hungry bankers in their twenties.  The devastation of our communities n the Lakes overwhelmed by excessive second home ownership is a case in point.
 
In short, we have an underlying, aching discomfort which goes to the heart of the reasons for the immediate crisis.
 
More than a discomfort.
 
It is a great and abiding fear, gnawing away at the heart of our society.
 
And we have a political class, which I don’t particularly like having to accept I’m a member of, which has abandoned people disastrously to their fate.
 
I believe that, in the national interest, we remainers and brexiters can most of us understand the motivations of voters on the other side to us.
 
We’re able to see beyond the stereotypes.
 
And to say together.
 
This open-minded nation will survive.
 
It will survive because these Liberal values are shared by so many of us. 
 
The right to say ‘this is who I am’. ‘This is who we are’.
 
And the enterprising commitment to challenge the big bureaucracies and the big businesses from below.
 
That’s why we will defend people wherever they came from originally.
 
Those who were born and bred here who are locked out of success by boneheaded cuts in adult education.
 
But also the Polish families who have work three jobs just to pay the rent, but who still help to run the school fete.
 
And the refugees who provide lynchpins to hospital after hospital from one side of the country to the other.
 
Right across the nation, and woven together, from Cornwall to Caithness.
 
Again, I say this not just as a party leader.
 
I don’t just say this to commit my party to it.
 
I say it as a proud citizen of this country.
 
With a shared history that’s always been outward-looking.
 
Connected through trade to other corners of the world in a way that no nation ever was before.
 
We provided the international language of the world.
 
We led the world in industrial development, moral development and scientific development.
 
And we stood up against tyranny even when it didn’t threaten us directly.
 
When all over Europe, those suffering under occupation, risked their lives to huddle around their wirelesses to listen to broadcasts from London.
 
There never was a moment in our history when we pulled up the drawbridge.
 
There never will be.
 
It just isn’t true that Britain voted to do that.
 
So that’s also my commitment as leader of the Liberal Democrats.
 
To listen to that fear and take it seriously. 
 
And then to hammer out and enact a more humane, more successful, more effective way of doing economics.
 
More challenging, more enterprising and more ambitious.
 
Which shares the rewards of success so that the state doesn’t have to step in so much.
 
To take on the real vested interests that hold us back as a nation.
 
The zero hour contractors.
 
The speculators.
 
The monopolists.
 
Those who would hijack people’s anger for their own racist agenda.
 
So that we can shape a fairer nation.
 
But also keep those outward-looking British values of tolerance and mutual respect that we all believe in.
 
Because there are going to be difficult, maybe dark, times ahead.
 
We’ve been made a laughing stock abroad.
 
We’ve had to watch the shaming pictures of Nigel Farage sneering on our behalf in the European Parliament.
 
We have to find a solution when both the biggest national parties have preferred to unravel than to take a lead.
 
But I’m a Liberal.
 
I believe in people.
 
And I especially believe in our people.
 
In their sense and their humanity, whether they voted to stay or to go.
 
People have been let down for decades by short-termist politicians who put the needs of one part of society above the rest.
 
Now, in the wake of the Brexit vote those divisions are more exposed than ever before.
 
With our country facing huge challenges…
 
– from inequality and injustice to an NHS in crisis and an economy in jeopardy –
 
…we are left with a reckless, divisive and uncaring Conservative Government and Labour fighting among themselves with no plan for the economy or the country.
 
That’s why the Liberal Democrats are needed more than ever.
 
We are the real voice of opposition to the Conservative Brexit Government and the only party fighting to keep Britain open, tolerant and united.
 
Britain is the most sophisticated and welcoming and innovative nation in the world and, in or out, we will stay that.
 
And we Liberal Democrats will do whatever we can, in Parliament and outside.
 
To reshape the way the nation works, to bring it back together.
 
To stay civilised. 
 
To stay united.
 
Because, wherever we were born, we love our country.​
 

Tim Farron is leader of the Liberal Democrats.