The cautionary tale of the 79-year-old tax dodger

How much of George Osborne's pledge to cut tax evasion is chest-thumping?

UK chancellor George Osborne has unveiled a budget full of detail on government plans to crack down on tax evasion. The UK government has been banging its drum for some time on the topic, but now it’s released some firm detail on what it intends to do, and in particular its offshore strategy. The question is how much of this is chest-thumping and what will it actually mean?

Here, like in many other areas, it’s useful to see what the US is doing and it’s clear that the UK has taken its lead from across the Pond. The US has had significant success putting the fear into US citizens with assets abroad. The US Internal Revenue Service has netted more than $5bn in back taxes, interest and penalties since 2009. This included the conviction of a 79-year-old former offshore account holder, Mary Estelle Curran, who was fined $21m having failed to report tax of $667,716 on her undeclared offshore accounts (although the accounts did hold $41m so she wasn’t left destitute by the fine!). The HMRC has outlined plans to use similar name and shame tactics to get the desired result.

The message the government and HMRC are trying to send is clear: the government is doing its worst to be a big bad monster and force tax-dodgers to quake in their boots and fess up. The government says it will ‘name and shame’ not only avoiders, but those who help them all – or as David Cameron referred to them in Davos earlier this year: “the travelling caravan of lawyers, accountants and financial gurus”. The aim is to bring in an extra £4.6bn in taxes over the next five years and the tax exchange agreements recently agreed with Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man are expected to bring in more than £1bn of that over the same period.

This seems like a modest amount, and it would be entirely realistic to see this figure edge higher. According to global wealth consultancy WealthInsight the amount of offshore funds held in the UK and Channel Islands by local clients’ stands at about £515bn. Osborne’s figure of £1bn is, therefore, a tiny drop in this ocean of offshore money.

However it’s important to remember that this kind of rhetoric about tax dodgers is not new. Governments have been talking about it for the past seven years, although it’s only now that the regulatory machinery has caught up. There’s little doubt the smart money has already moved to become transparent – those caught in the coming years are likely to be those without Cameron’s ‘caravan’ of sophisticated advisers.

Still it’s important not to underestimate to what lengths the tax authorities will go to claw back revenue. Since 2010 the HMRC has spent £1bn on tax gathering including employing an extra 2,500 staff by 2014-15. And the HMRC is not just targeting high flyers; it recently released a list of evaders who had avoided £25,000 or more. The writing is on the wall. The government coffers need any penny they can scrape together and the HMRC is set to go to what may seem like extreme lengths to claw back all it can get from its taxpayers, at home and abroad.

George Osborne. Photograph: Getty Images
Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses