High noon for Lord Ashcroft

New ruling means the peer's "undertaking" on his tax status will be revealed.

The Tories have prevaricated for years over Michael Ashcroft's tax status but their time is running out.

The Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham, has ordered the Cabinet Office to reveal within 35 days the nature of the "undertaking" Ashcroft made to end his tax-exile status when he became a peer. The ruling concludes that the public interest in Ashcroft and his position in the Tory party outweighs any individual right to privacy on the matter.

David Cameron's failure to get a grip on this issue is one of the biggest moral and strategic blunders of his leadership. First, it provides Labour and the Lib Dems with a line of attack they can use repeatedly in the run-up to the election. Second, it antagonises Tory backbenchers who note the special treatment extended to Ashcroft, treatment that is in marked contrast to the tough line Cameron has taken on expenses.

Last month, in a typical piece of obfuscation, the Tory leader said:

Lord Ashcroft's tax status is a matter between him and the Inland Revenue. What I can say and what he has said is that the undertakings he gave at the time of being made a peer are undertakings that he is meeting.

By contrast, when it emerged that Zac Goldsmith was claiming non-dom tax status he was ordered by Cameron to give this up "as a matter of urgency".

It's hard to avoid the conclusion that Cameron has been running scared of Ashcroft, once described by Peter Oborne as "the man who bought the Tory party". The Conservatives have gained little and lost much from this affair. That Cameron has allowed it to drag on for so long raises questions about his integrity -- and his judgement.


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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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PMQs review: Theresa May shows again that Brexit means hard Brexit

The Prime Minister's promise of "an end to free movement" is incompatible with single market membership. 

Theresa May, it is commonly said, has told us nothing about Brexit. At today's PMQs, Jeremy Corbyn ran with this line, demanding that May offer "some clarity". In response, as she has before, May stated what has become her defining aim: "an end to free movement". This vow makes a "hard Brexit" (or "chaotic Brexit" as Corbyn called it) all but inevitable. The EU regards the "four freedoms" (goods, capital, services and people) as indivisible and will not grant the UK an exemption. The risk of empowering eurosceptics elsewhere is too great. Only at the cost of leaving the single market will the UK regain control of immigration.

May sought to open up a dividing line by declaring that "the Labour Party wants to continue with free movement" (it has refused to rule out its continuation). "I want to deliver on the will of the British people, he is trying to frustrate the British people," she said. The problem is determining what the people's will is. Though polls show voters want control of free movement, they also show they want to maintain single market membership. It is not only Boris Johnson who is pro-having cake and pro-eating it. 

Corbyn later revealed that he had been "consulting the great philosophers" as to the meaning of Brexit (a possible explanation for the non-mention of Heathrow, Zac Goldsmith's resignation and May's Goldman Sachs speech). "All I can come up with is Baldrick, who says our cunning plan is to have no plan," he quipped. Without missing a beat, May replied: "I'm interested that [he] chose Baldrick, of course the actor playing Baldrick was a member of the Labour Party, as I recall." (Tony Robinson, a Corbyn critic ("crap leader"), later tweeted that he still is one). "We're going to deliver the best possible deal in goods and services and we're going to deliver an end to free movement," May continued. The problem for her is that the latter aim means that the "best possible deal" may be a long way from the best. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.