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 Images.
Show Hide image

Tom Watson rouses Labour's conference as he comes out fighting

The party's deputy leader exhilarated delegates with his paean to the Blair and Brown years. 

Tom Watson is down but not out. After Jeremy Corbyn's second landslide victory, and weeks of threats against his position, Labour's deputy leader could have played it safe. Instead, he came out fighting. 

With Corbyn seated directly behind him, he declared: "I don't know why we've been focusing on what was wrong with the Blair and Brown governments for the last six years. But trashing our record is not the way to enhance our brand. We won't win elections like that! And we need to win elections!" As Watson won a standing ovation from the hall and the platform, the Labour leader remained motionless. When a heckler interjected, Watson riposted: "Jeremy, I don't think she got the unity memo." Labour delegates, many of whom hail from the pre-Corbyn era, lapped it up.

Though he warned against another challenge to the leader ("we can't afford to keep doing this"), he offered a starkly different account of the party's past and its future. He reaffirmed Labour's commitment to Nato ("a socialist construct"), with Corbyn left isolated as the platform applauded. The only reference to the leader came when Watson recalled his recent PMQs victory over grammar schools. There were dissenting voices (Watson was heckled as he praised Sadiq Khan for winning an election: "Just like Jeremy Corbyn!"). But one would never have guessed that this was the party which had just re-elected Corbyn. 

There was much more to Watson's speech than this: a fine comic riff on "Saturday's result" (Ed Balls on Strictly), a spirited attack on Theresa May's "ducking and diving; humming and hahing" and a cerebral account of the automation revolution. But it was his paean to Labour history that roused the conference as no other speaker has. 

The party's deputy channelled the spirit of both Hugh Gaitskell ("fight, and fight, and fight again to save the party we love") and his mentor Gordon Brown (emulating his trademark rollcall of New Labour achivements). With his voice cracking, Watson recalled when "from the sunny uplands of increasing prosperity social democratic government started to feel normal to the people of Britain". For Labour, a party that has never been further from power in recent decades, that truly was another age. But for a brief moment, Watson's tubthumper allowed Corbyn's vanquished opponents to relive it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.