Is Lord Ashcroft "non-domiciled"?

Conservative HQ smooths over Sir George Young's comments on Newsnight.

Does Lord Ashcroft pay tax in the UK?

It's a question that has posed a difficulty for senior Tories over the past few weeks, as they struggle to give a clear yes or no answer to journalists who, enthused by their obvious discomfort, harangue them about it at every opportunity.

And now it looks like Sir George Young, shadow leader of the House of Lords, may have inadvertently given us an answer last night on Newsnight. Young was fresh from his rather evasive appearance on Monday's Today programme.

Discussion got heated as the presenter Emily Maitlis and the Culture Secretary, Ben Bradshaw, rounded on him, demanding a yes or no in response to the "simple question". "He pays tax," insisted Young.

But then came the key soundbite (you can watch a video of the whole encounter here):

He is in the same position as a number of Labour peers who are non-domiciled and who fund the Labour Party.

To all intents and purposes, it appears that in this sentence, Young is describing Ashcroft as a non-dom. However, things are not always as they seem.

The Guardian quotes a Conservative Party spokesman as saying: "Sir George doesn't know Lord Ashcroft's tax status. He was only making the comparison that the Labour Party face their own questions about their donors."

It is, of course, possible that Young "misspoke", as Tory sources say, put off his stride by the rather aggressive nature of the questioning. Senior figures in the party have consistently stuck to David Cameron's line last December, that "Lord Ashcroft's tax status is a matter between him and the Inland Revenue".

One thing we can be certain of is that ten years after Ashcroft was made a life peer and gave "assurances" over his tax status, this storm shows no sign of blowing over.

 

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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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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.