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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You may call me a monster – but I'm glad that girl's lemonade stall got shut down

What's wrong with hard-working public servants enforcing perfectly sensible regulations?

Who could fail to be moved by the widely shared tears of a five year old whose innocent lemonade stall was brutally shut down by evil bureaucrats? What sort of monster would not have their heartstrings tugged by the plaintive “I've done a bad thing” from a girl whose father tells us she “just wanted to put a smile on people's faces”?

Well me, actually.

There are half a million cases of food poisoning each year in the UK, and one of the reasons we have stringent controls on who can sell food and drink, especially in unsealed containers, is to try to cut those figures down. And street stalls in general are regulated because we have a system of taxation, rights and responsibilities in this country which underpins our functioning society. Regulation is a social and economic good.

It’s also pretty unfair to criticise the hard-working public servants who acted in this case for doing the job they are no doubt underpaid to do. For the council to say “we expect our enforcement officers to show common sense” as they cancelled the fine is all very well, but I’m willing to bet they are given precious little leeway in their training when it comes to who gets fined and who doesn’t. If the council is handing out apologies, it likely should be issuing one to its officers as well.

“But these are decent folk being persecuted by a nanny state,” I hear you cry. And I stand impervious, I’m afraid. Because I’ve heard that line a lot recently and it’s beginning to grate.

It’s the same argument used against speed cameras and parking fines. How often have you heard those caught out proclaim themselves as “law-abiding citizens” and bemoan the infringement of their freedom? I have news for you: if you break the speed limit, or park illegally, or indeed break health and safety or trading regulations, you are not a law-abiding citizen. You’re actually the one who’s in the wrong.

And rarely is ignorance an excuse. Speed limits and parking regulations are posted clearly. In the case of the now famous lemonade stand, the father in question is even quoted as saying “I thought that they would just tell us to pack up and go home.” So he knew he was breaking the rules. He just didn’t think the consequences should apply to him.

A culture of entitlement, and a belief that rules are for other people but not us, is a disease gripping middle Britain. It is demonstrated in many different ways, from the driver telling the cyclist that she has no right to be on the road because she doesn’t pay road tax (I know), to the father holding up his daughter’s tears to get out of a fine.

I know, I’m a monster. But hooray for the enforcers, I say.

Duncan Hothersall is the editor of Labour Hame