William Hague: how long is a "few months"?

Compare the former Tory leader's statements on Michael Ashcroft, now and last month.

The latest instalment in the soap opera over Lord Ashcroft's tax status came last night when the former Conservative leader William Hague admitted on Radio 4's The World Tonight that he had only recently discovered the terms of the arrangement that allow Ashcroft to avoid paying full tax.

Asked whether Ashcroft's public statement on Monday was the "first he had known" of it, Hague said: "Well, I knew in advance of that," and went on to admit that he had known for the "last few months".

Some of the media coverage has focused on the fact that Hague, who vociferously pushed for Ashcroft's peerage in 2000, was kept in the dark by his close friend for nearly a decade. But surely the real scandal is that in the "last few months", as journalists and the opposition have turned up the heat on the issue, Hague has repeatedly evaded the question by denying any knowledge of Ashcroft's tax status.

Let's just compare Hague's recent statements on the matter.

Last night on Radio 4's The World Tonight:

Over the last few months I knew and, after that, of course I was very keen to support him in making that position public.

One month ago (7 February) on the Andrew Marr Show:

Andrew Marr: . . . does he pay tax as a British taxpayer, as a British citizen? Which is a very straightforward question.

William Hague: 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.

Hague has yet to clarify exactly what he means by "last few months", but unless he's using a different calendar from the rest of us, it's fair to assume that he knew considerably more than he was letting on.

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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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The big problem for the NHS? Local government cuts

Even a U-Turn on planned cuts to the service itself will still leave the NHS under heavy pressure. 

38Degrees has uncovered a series of grisly plans for the NHS over the coming years. Among the highlights: severe cuts to frontline services at the Midland Metropolitan Hospital, including but limited to the closure of its Accident and Emergency department. Elsewhere, one of three hospitals in Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland are to be shuttered, while there will be cuts to acute services in Suffolk and North East Essex.

These cuts come despite an additional £8bn annual cash injection into the NHS, characterised as the bare minimum needed by Simon Stevens, the head of NHS England.

The cuts are outlined in draft sustainability and transformation plans (STP) that will be approved in October before kicking off a period of wider consultation.

The problem for the NHS is twofold: although its funding remains ringfenced, healthcare inflation means that in reality, the health service requires above-inflation increases to stand still. But the second, bigger problem aren’t cuts to the NHS but to the rest of government spending, particularly local government cuts.

That has seen more pressure on hospital beds as outpatients who require further non-emergency care have nowhere to go, increasing lifestyle problems as cash-strapped councils either close or increase prices at subsidised local authority gyms, build on green space to make the best out of Britain’s booming property market, and cut other corners to manage the growing backlog of devolved cuts.

All of which means even a bigger supply of cash for the NHS than the £8bn promised at the last election – even the bonanza pledged by Vote Leave in the referendum, in fact – will still find itself disappearing down the cracks left by cuts elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.