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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Richard Dawkins: We need a new party - the European Party

I was unqualified to vote in the EU referendum. So at least now we should hear from experts. 

It is just conceivable that Brexit will eventually turn out to be a good thing. I gravely doubt it, but I’m not qualified to judge. And that is the point. I wasn’t qualified to vote in the referendum. Nor were you, unless you have a PhD in economics or are an expert in a relevant field such as history. It’s grotesque that David Cameron, with the squalidly parochial aim of silencing the Ukip-leaning wing of his party, gambled away our future and handed it over to a rabble of ignorant voters like me.

I voted – under protest, because I never should have been asked to vote, but I did. In line with the precautionary principle, I knew enough to understand that such a significant, complex and intricate change as Brexit would drive a clumsy bull through hundreds of delicate china shops painstakingly stocked up over decades of European co-operation: financial agreements, manufacturing partnerships, international scholarships, research grants, cultural and edu­cational exchanges.

I voted Remain, too, because, though ­ignorant of the details, I could at least spot that the Leave arguments were visceral, emotional and often downright xenophobic. And I could see that the Remain arguments were predominantly rational and ­evidence-based. They were derided as “Project Fear”, but fear can be rational. The fear of a man stalked by a hungry polar bear is entirely different from the fear of a man who thinks that he has seen a ghost. The trick is to distinguish justified fear from irrational fear. Those who scorned Project Fear made not the slightest attempt to do so.

The single most shocking message conveyed during the referendum campaign was: “Don’t trust experts.” The British people are fed up with them, we were told. You, the voter, are the expert here. Despicable though the sentiment was, it unfortunately was true. Cameron made it true. By his unspeakable folly in calling the referendum, he promoted everyone to the rank of expert. You might as well call a nationwide plebiscite to decide whether Einstein got his algebra right, or let passengers vote on which runway the pilot should land on.

Scientists are experts only in their own limited field. I can’t judge the details of physics papers in the journal Nature, but I know that they’ve been refereed rigorously by experts chosen by an expert editor. Scientists who lie about their research results (and regrettably there are a few) face the likelihood that they’ll be rumbled when their experiments are repeated. In the world of science, faking your data is the cardinal sin. Do so and you’ll be drummed out of the profession without mercy and for ever.

A politician who lies will theoretically get payback at the next election. The trouble with Brexit is that there is no next election. Brexit is for keeps. Everyone now knows that the £350m slogan on the Brexit bus was a barefaced lie, but it’s too late. Even if the liars lose their seats at the next election (and they probably won’t), Brexit still means Brexit, and Brexit is irreversible. Long after the old people who voted Leave are dead and forgotten, the young who couldn’t be bothered to vote and now regret it will be reaping the consequences.

A slender majority of the British people, on one particular day in June last year when the polls had been going up and down like a Yo-Yo, gave their ill-informed and actively misled opinion. They were not asked what they wanted to get into, only what they wanted to get out of. They might have thought “Take back control” meant “Give control back to our sovereign parliament, which will decide the details”. Yes, well, look how that’s working out!

“The British people have spoken” has become an article of zealous faith. Even to suggest that parliament should have a little bitty say in the details is hysterically condemned as heresy, defying “the people”. British politics has become toxic. There is poison in the air. We thought that we had grown out of xenophobic bigotry and nationalistic jingoism. Or, at least, we thought it had been tamed, shamed into shutting its oafish mouth. The Brexit vote signalled an immediate rise in attacks on decent, hard-working Poles and others. Bigots have been handed a new licence. Senior judges who upheld the law were damned as “enemies of the people” and physically threatened.

Am I being elitist? Of course. What’s wrong with that? We want elite surgeons who know their anatomy, elite pilots who know how to fly, elite engineers to build safe bridges, elite athletes to win at the Olympics for Team GB, elite architects to design beautiful buildings, elite teachers and professors to educate the next generation and help them join the elite. In the same way, to decide the affairs of state, as we live in a representative democracy, we can at least hope to elect elite parliamentarians, guided and advised by elite, highly educated civil servants. Not politicians who abdicate their democratic responsibility and hand important decisions over to people like me.

What is to be done? Labour, the so-called opposition, has caved in to the doctrine of “the British people have spoken”. Only the Lib Dems and SNP are left standing. Unfortunately, the Lib Dem brand is tarnished by association with Cameron in the coalition.

Any good PR expert would prescribe a big makeover, a change of name. The “Euro­pean Party” would attract Labour voters and Labour MPs disillusioned with Jeremy Corbyn. The European Party would attract Europhile Tory MPs – and there are plenty of them. The European Party would attract a high proportion of the 48 per cent of us who voted Remain. The European Party would attract big donations. The European Party might not win the next election, but it would stand a better chance than Labour or the Lib Dems under their present name. And it would provide the proper opposition that we so sorely need.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition