Why any tax avoidance "clampdown" is a ridiculous game of whack-a-mole

Danny Alexander's "mansion tax lite" has been torpedoed by oligarchs claiming their £2m+ properties are "open to the public". It shows how hard it is to stop the rich - and their lawyers - finding creative ways to beat the taxman.

In all the furore around the Budget, the Spending Review and so on, many have ignored the introduction of the Lib Dems so-called "mansion tax for tax-dodgers". This "tax", which only affects properties worth over £2m, was actually the closing of a loophole. 

The loophole in question - which allowed people to avoid stamp duty on expensive properties using offshore companies - was theoretically sealed from the start of April. A super-duty of 15 per cent was imposed on the purchase of properties worth more than £2m by companies; and an annual charge of up to £140,000 every year was levied on them once they were bought.

Well, in theory, at least. Like almost everything else the Lib Dems have promised to do, this has all fallen down around their ears. Why? Well, that's all down to clever tax lawyers seeing a new loophole, accidentally provided by short-term lettings website Air BnB.

You see, there's an exemption written into the rules, which lets off properties which are "open to the public" from the new tax. It's meant to exempt stately homes and museums, which are often private homes but open for viewing over the summer, and quite legitimately put the earnings from the tea room into a company. No one wanted them to be hit with a levy intended to stop tax-dodging oligarchs.

Of course, when you close a loophole intended for oligarchs, you'd better be sure not to open another, or their lawyers will spot it. One bright tax lawyer came up with the idea that if you offer to let out your property - regardless of whether you actually let out - it's technically "open to the public", in that literally anyone could pay to go and stay there. Provided, of course, they can afford whatever you are charging.

It's probably pretty reasonable to charge a fortune for your One Hyde Park flat, given the amenities, which include all your mail being X-rayed, iris recognition in the lifts, panic rooms, bomb-proof windows, a 21-metre swimming pool, a cinema, a golf simulator, a wine cellar and room service via a secret tunnel from the five-star Mandarin Oriental hotel next door.

So, you advertise your One Hyde Park flat (registered to an offshore company, of course - as 59 out of 77 flats in the building are) on Air BnB, no one volunteers to pay the huge fee you ask for, and you save yourself 140 grand in tax. Worst case scenario, you have to let out your flat to someone, but you probably don't care, because you can arrange to be skiing in Gstaad for that week anyway.

Some of the properties currently being offered on AirBnb are at eye-wateringly high prices. While there is no evidence that, for example, this £3,175 a night flat is using the loophole I've described - I can confirm from a tax lawyer for a major firm (who asked not to be named) - that offering your flat out to rent has become the standard advice being doled out to his firm's "high net worth clients".

So, Air BnB will doing brisk - perfectly legal - business as every oligarch and his babushka registers. And no one who is well advised will pay the Mansion Tax-lite. And the Lib Dem plan is yet another failure. Thanks internet!

Of course, while there is some schadenfreude to be had from yet another Lib Dem flagship policy running aground on the rocks of reality, it's also a salutary lesson for policy makers on the sheer difficulty of clamping down on tax avoidance. Even if they close the "AirBnB loophole", the lawyers of the rich will find another, as long as the "open to the public" exemption still exists.

This story is a great example of how the government's attempts to clamp down on tax avoidance amount to a ridiculous game of whack-a-mole - if we want to get serious about tackling tax avoidance, what we need is root and branch reform, not tinkering at the edges. Put away the mallet, George, and pick up a bazooka.

One Hyde Park in London: many of its apartments are owned by companies in the British Virgin Islands. Photograph: Getty Images

Willard Foxton is a card-carrying Tory, and in his spare time a freelance television producer, who makes current affairs films for the BBC and Channel 4. Find him on Twitter as @WillardFoxton.

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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.