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!

 

Follow the New Statesman team on Twitter.

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

Getty
Show Hide image

What Charles Windsor’s garden reveals about the future of the British monarchy

As an open-minded republican, two things struck me. 

First we are told that the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, has lost his battle for a “soft” Brexit. In a joint article, he and the International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, the hardest of the ministerial Brexiteers, seem to agree that the UK will leave the European customs union in 2019. Then we get a reverse ferret. Hammond will go for a softish Brexit, after all. A government paper states that the UK will seek a “temporary customs union” in the “transition period” that, it hopes, will follow Brexit.

All this is a taste of things to come. We shall see many more instances of hard and soft Brexiteers celebrating victory or shrieking about betrayal. We shall also see UK and EU leaders storming out of talks, only to return to negotiations a few days later. My advice is to ignore it all until Friday 29 March 2019, when UK and EU leaders will emerge from all-night talks to announce a final, impenetrable fudge.

Lessons not learned

What you should not ignore is the scandal over Learndirect, the country’s largest adult training and apprenticeships provider. An Ofsted report states that a third of its apprentices receive none of the off-the-job training required. In a random sample, it found no evidence of learning plans.

Labour started Learndirect in 2000 as a charitable trust controlled by the Department for Education. It was sold to the private equity arm of Lloyds Bank in 2011 but remains largely reliant on public money (£158m in 2016-17). Since privatisation, 84 per cent of its cash has gone on management fees, interest payments and shareholder dividends. It spent £504,000 on sponsoring the Marussia Formula One team in an attempt to reach “our core customer group… in a new and exciting way”. The apprentices’ success rate fell from 67.5 per cent before privatisation to 57.8 per cent now.

This episode tells us that, however the Brexit process is going, Britain’s problems remain unchanged. Too many services are in the hands of greedy, incompetent private firms, and we are no closer to developing a skilled workforce. We only know about Learndirect’s failure because the company’s attempt to prevent Ofsted publishing its report was, after ten weeks of legal wrangling, overthrown in the courts.

A lot of hot air

Immediately after the Paris climate change accord in 2015, I expressed doubts about how each country’s emissions could be monitored and targets enforced. Now a BBC Radio 4 investigation finds that climate-warming gases emitted into the atmosphere far exceed those declared under the agreement. For example, declarations of methane emissions from livestock in India are subject to 50 per cent uncertainty, and those in Russia to 30-40 per cent uncertainty. One region in northern Italy, according to Swiss scientists, emits at least six times more climate-warming gases than are officially admitted. Remember this when you next hear politicians proclaiming that, after long and arduous negotiations, they have achieved a great victory.

Come rain or come shine

Climate change, scientists insist, is not the same thing as changes in the weather but writing about it brings me naturally to Britain’s wet August and newspaper articles headlined “Whatever happened to the sunny Augusts of our childhood?” and so on. The Daily Mail had one in which the writer recalled not a “single rainy day” from his family holidays in Folkestone. This, as he explained, is the result of what psychologists call “fading affect bias”, which causes our brains to hold positive memories longer than negative ones.

My brain is apparently atypical. I recall constant frustration as attempts to watch or play cricket were interrupted by rain. I remember sheltering indoors on family holidays with card games and books. My life, it seems, began, along with sunshine, when I left home for university at 18. Do psychologists have a name for my condition?

High and dry

Being an open-minded republican, I bought my wife, a keen gardener, an escorted tour of the gardens at Highgrove, the private residence of the man I call Charles Windsor, for her birthday. We went there this month during a break in the Cotswolds. The gardens are in parts too fussy, rather like its owner, but they are varied, colourful and hugely enjoyable. Two things struck me. First, the gardens of the elite were once designed to showcase the owner’s wealth and status, with the eye drawn to the grandeur of the mansion. Highgrove’s garden is designed for privacy, with many features intended to protect royalty from the prying public and particularly the press photographers’ long lenses. Second, our guide, pointing out what the owner had planted and designed, referred throughout to “His Royal Highness”, never “Charles”. I am pondering what these observations mean for the monarchy and its future.

Sympathy for the devil

Before leaving for the Cotswolds, we went to the Almeida Theatre in north London to see Ink, featuring Rupert Murdoch’s relaunch of the Sun in 1969. Many accounts of Murdoch  portray him as a power-crazed monster and his tabloid hacks as amoral reptiles. Ink is far more nuanced. It shows Murdoch as a mixture of diffidence, charm and menace, in love with newspapers and determined to blow apart a complacent,
paternalistic British establishment.

You may think that he and the Sun had a permanently coarsening effect on public life and culture, and I would largely agree. But he was also, in his own way, a 1960s figure and his Sun, with its demonic energy, was as typical a product of that decade as the Beatles’ songs. The play strengthened my hunch that its author, James Graham, who also wrote This House, set in the parliamentary whips’ offices during the 1970s, will eventually be ranked as the century’s first great playwright.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear