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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Who will win in Manchester Gorton?

Will Labour lose in Manchester Gorton?

The death of Gerald Kaufman will trigger a by-election in his Manchester Gorton seat, which has been Labour-held since 1935.

Coming so soon after the disappointing results in Copeland – where the seat was lost to the Tories – and Stoke – where the party lost vote share – some overly excitable commentators are talking up the possibility of an upset in the Manchester seat.

But Gorton is very different to Stoke-on-Trent and to Copeland. The Labour lead is 56 points, compared to 16.5 points in Stoke-on-Trent and 6.5 points in Copeland. (As I’ve written before and will doubtless write again, it’s much more instructive to talk about vote share rather than vote numbers in British elections. Most of the country tends to vote in the same way even if they vote at different volumes.)

That 47 per cent of the seat's residents come from a non-white background and that the Labour party holds every council seat in the constituency only adds to the party's strong position here. 

But that doesn’t mean that there is no interest to be had in the contest at all. That the seat voted heavily to remain in the European Union – around 65 per cent according to Chris Hanretty’s estimates – will provide a glimmer of hope to the Liberal Democrats that they can finish a strong second, as they did consistently from 1992 to 2010, before slumping to fifth in 2015.

How they do in second place will inform how jittery Labour MPs with smaller majorities and a history of Liberal Democrat activity are about Labour’s embrace of Brexit.

They also have a narrow chance of becoming competitive should Labour’s selection turn acrimonious. The seat has been in special measures since 2004, which means the selection will be run by the party’s national executive committee, though several local candidates are tipped to run, with Afzal Khan,  a local MEP, and Julie Reid, a local councillor, both expected to run for the vacant seats.

It’s highly unlikely but if the selection occurs in a way that irritates the local party or provokes serious local in-fighting, you can just about see how the Liberal Democrats give everyone a surprise. But it’s about as likely as the United States men landing on Mars any time soon – plausible, but far-fetched. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.