Will Cameron and Osborne remain silent over Goldman Sachs's tax ploy?

Having denounced "aggressive tax avoidance", Osborne is under pressure to respond to the bank's plan to avoid the 50p rate tax by delaying bonus payments.

Update: It appears that the adverse publicity has prompted a rethink at Goldman. The bank has dropped plans to delay bonus payments and, consequently, will pay the 50p rate. Before the announcement, the Treasury said simply: "We do not comment on the tax affairs of individual companies, but we are clear that everyone must pay the tax they owe."

As Alex reported yesterday, mega-bank Goldman Sachs is considering deferring bonus payments for its UK employees until April in order to benefit from the reduction of the 50p tax rate to 45p. The proposed tax dodge has already drawn criticism from Labour, with shadow Treasury minister Chris Leslie declaring that "banks need to think carefully about their own reputations if they seek to avoid tax in this way" and the redoubtable Margaret Hodge accusing Goldmans of not giving "a toss about collective responsibility".

This morning, Bank of England governor Mervyn King added his voice to the protests. During his appearance before the Treasury select committee, he commented:

I find it a bit depressing that people who earn so much find it would be even more exciting to adjust their payouts to benefit from the tax rate, knowing that this must have an impact of the rest of society, which is suffering most from the consequences of the financial crisis. I think it would be a rather clumsy and lacking in care and attention to how other people might react. And in the long run, financial institutions do depend on goodwill from society.

King's intervention prompts the question of whether David Cameron and George Osborne will have anything to say about the matter. In last year's Budget, Osborne memorably denounced "aggressive tax avoidance" as "morally repugnant". And if Cameron is prepared to take the time to attack Jimmy Carr for tax avoidance, one might expect him to comment when one of the world's largest investment banks deploys similar chicanery. The numbers involved are not insignificant. Goldman paid out £8bn in bonuses last year and a similar stunt by the bank and others in 2010 (when they brought forward income in order to avoid the rise from 40p to 50p) cost the Treasury £16bn.

Labour is keen to take every opportunity to remind the public that the government is choosing to cut taxes for the top 1.5 per cent of earners this April. With the additional chance to protest at "aggressive tax avoidance", don't be surprised if Ed Miliband raises this issue at PMQs tomorrow.

Lloyd Blankfein, Chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Picture: ANDRÉ CARRILHO
Show Hide image

Leader: Boris Johnson, a liar and a charlatan

The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. 

Boris Johnson is a liar, a charlatan and a narcissist. In 1988, when he was a reporter at the Times, he fabricated a quotation from his godfather, an eminent historian, which duly appeared in a news story on the front page. He was sacked. (We might pause here to acknowledge the advantage to a young journalist of having a godfather whose opinions were deemed worthy of appearing in a national newspaper.) Three decades later, his character has not improved.

On 17 September, Mr Johnson wrote a lengthy, hyperbolic article for the Daily Telegraph laying out his “vision” for Brexit – in terms calculated to provoke and undermine the Prime Minister (who was scheduled to give a speech on Brexit in Florence, Italy, as we went to press). Extracts of his “article”, which reads more like a speech, appeared while a terror suspect was on the loose and the country’s threat level was at “critical”, leading the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, to remark: “On the day of a terror attack where Britons were maimed, just hours after the threat level is raised, our only thoughts should be on service.”

Three other facets of this story are noteworthy. First, the article was published alongside other pieces echoing and praising its conclusions, indicating that the Telegraph is now operating as a subsidiary of the Johnson for PM campaign. Second, Theresa May did not respond by immediately sacking her disloyal Foreign Secretary – a measure of how much the botched election campaign has weakened her authority. Finally, it is remarkable that Mr Johnson’s article repeated the most egregious – and most effective – lie of the EU referendum campaign. “Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350m per week,” the Foreign Secretary claimed. “It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS.”

This was the promise of Brexit laid out by the official Vote Leave team: we send £350m to Brussels, and after leaving the EU, that money can be spent on public services. Yet the £350m figure includes the rebate secured by Margaret Thatcher – so just under a third of the sum never leaves the country. Also, any plausible deal will involve paying significant amounts to the EU budget in return for continued participation in science and security agreements. To continue to invoke this figure is shameless. That is not a partisan sentiment: the head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, denounced Mr Johnson’s “clear misuse of official statistics”.

In the days that followed, the chief strategist of Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings – who, as Simon Heffer writes in this week's New Statesman, is widely suspected of involvement in Mr Johnson’s article – added his voice. Brexit was a “shambles” so far, he claimed, because of the ineptitude of the civil service and the government’s decision to invoke Article 50 before outlining its own detailed demands.

There is a fine Yiddish word to describe this – chutzpah. Mr Johnson, like all the other senior members of Vote Leave in parliament, voted to trigger Article 50 in March. If he and his allies had concerns about this process, the time to speak up was then.

It has been clear for some time that Mr Johnson has no ideological attachment to Brexit. (During the referendum campaign, he wrote articles arguing both the Leave and Remain case, before deciding which one to publish – in the Telegraph, naturally.) However, every day brings fresh evidence that he and his allies are not interested in the tough, detailed negotiations required for such an epic undertaking. They will brush aside any concerns about our readiness for such a huge challenge by insisting that Brexit would be a success if only they were in charge of it.

This is unlikely. Constant reports emerge of how lightly Mr Johnson treats his current role. At a summit aiming to tackle the grotesque humanitarian crisis in Yemen, he is said to have astounded diplomats by joking: “With friends like these, who needs Yemenis?” The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. By extension, he demeans our politics. 

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left