How Cameron failed developing countries at the G8

From the beginning, the Prime Minister repeatedly failed to show the leadership on tax avoidance and transparency this summit needed.

The G8 meeting was heralded as a unique opportunity to address some of the structural causes of poverty and hunger. It was a chance to both put our own house in order and focus on making a difference to the lives of those in the developing world. Progress was made towards tackling hunger and malnutrition, with substantive funding commitments made by the UK and EU. We also saw a welcome commitment to supporting the UN’s humanitarian appeal for the horrendous crisis in Syria,  which remains staggeringly underfunded. 

David Cameron rightly made tackling tax avoidance and improving transparency a priority. The flawed system of global taxation has a profound impact on not only our revenues but also on the poor in developing countries. The Africa Progress Panel revealed just this week that African countries lose $50bn a year to illicit tax flows. But despite the Prime Minister’s rhetoric, his efforts fell desperately short in achieving the fundamental changes which are necessary.

It was imperative from the beginning that any G8 agreement should not "lock out" developing countries. However, it is unclear how developing countries will benefit from announcements on sharing tax information and whether they will be involved from the start in the Prime Minister’s new deal. This runs the risk of creating a "two-tier" system which allows advanced economies to benefit from transparency but excludes developing nations.

The Prime Minister also said: "Personally, I want to see the whole world moving towards public registries of beneficial ownership." This would allow all countries to benefit from knowing who owns companies and assets and take a step towards to tackling tax avoidance. It was, then, extremely disappointing and a significant U-turn that the agreements only commit the UK to a private registry of British companies and that no G8 country agreed to create a public register. We need far more than secretive lists in the UK of companies' true owners and vague promises of future action if we are to truly make progress towards ending tax secrecy.

The G8 Communique also includes lots of fine words, particularly on introducing country-by-country reporting for multinational companies and reform to rules which allow companies to shift profits out of developing countries, but no concrete action. Labour has repeatedly called for action on these issues which would enable developing countries to collect the taxes they are due and complement measures to build tax revenue collection capacity in these countries.

The Prime Minister could have used the window of opportunity presented by the G8 summit to deliver real action to tackle tax avoidance, not just for the UK, but for countries around the world.

Instead, from the beginning, he repeatedly failed to show the leadership this summit needed. On putting our own house in order, the government has consistently refused to review UK tax rules relating to controlled foreign companies which the evidence show costs developing countries £4bn a year in lost tax revenue. This is unacceptable.  

He has also been repeatedly criticised, as recently as recently as yesterday by the US, for failing to put in the necessary diplomatic and political work in the weeks and months leading up to the summit to secure meaningful deals on tax transparency. In 2005, the UK used the G8 chairmanship at Gleneagles to achieve the historic promise to increase aid by $50bn by 2010 as well as crucial steps on debt relief and climate change. This shows the magnitude of what can be achieved through ambitious hosting of the G8. But this took significant diplomatic effort and political will.

Sadly, this scale of commitment was largely lacking from the Prime Minister's approach this time around. This G8 could have done for tax and transparency what the 2005 G8 did for aid and debt relief. Instead, away from the hype and spin, when history is written, this summit will be seen as a missed opportunity in the fight against global poverty.

Labour wants to see an end to extreme poverty, a reduction in inequality and an end to aid dependency by 2030. A prerequisite to achieving these objectives will be developing countries having access to fair taxes from their citizens, domestic businesses and multinational companies. David Cameron chose the right priorities for the G8 summit but, as on so many other issues, his fine rhetoric and big promises were not matched by the  conviction or hard work necessary to deliver the radical change that we need. It is to be hoped that the G20 later this year will turn rhetoric and the promise of future action into the commitments we had expected to see. 

Ivan Lewis is the shadow international development secretary

David Cameron speaks during a press conference at the conclusion of the G8 summit in the Lough Erne resort near Enniskillen, Northern Ireland. Photograph: Getty Images.
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When Theresa May speaks, why don’t we listen?

Not many Prime Ministers have to repeat themselves three times. 

Theresa May is the candidate of Brexit and market panic. She ascended to the highest office because, in the fraught weeks after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, she represented a safe haven for nervous Conservative MPs, the dependable family mutual that remained open while all along the Conservative high street, her rivals were shutting up shop.

Her popularity, as revealed in high poll ratings outside Westminster, too, owes itself to the perception that she is a serious politician in serious times, happily installed atop the ship of state to guide it through the rocky waters of Brexit negotiations.

May’s premiership has been defined by market panics of a different kind, however. The first is in the currency markets, where sterling takes a tumble whenever she pronounces on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union, falling both after her conference speech on 2 October and after her start-of-the-year interview with Sophy Ridge on 8 January. The second is in the opinion pages, where May’s stock oscillates wildly from bullish to bearish.

In the first months of May’s government, she was hailed as an Anglo-Saxon counterpart to Angela Merkel: a solid centre-right Christian democrat who would usher in a decade of conservative hegemony. More recently, she has been compared to Gordon Brown because of her perceived indecisiveness and repeatedly accused of failing to spell out what, exactly, her government’s Brexit objectives are.

In a symbol of the splits on the right between the Brexiteers and Remainers, the Economist, that bible of free-market globalisation and usually a reliable tastemaker as far as Westminster groupthink is concerned, began 2017 by dubbing the Prime Minister “Theresa Maybe”. Though May’s Downing Street is less concerned with the minutiae of what goes on in the public press than David Cameron’s, the contention that she is indecisive was a source of frustration.

There is an element of truth in the claim that May still views the world through a “Home Office lens”. One senior minister complains that Downing Street considers the Ministry of Justice as a “rogue outpost” of May’s old stomping ground, rather than a fully fledged department with its own interests and perspectives.

Yet even the most authoritarian of home secretaries would struggle to secure a conviction against May on the charge of opacity as far as her Brexit approach is concerned. She has hit the same grace notes with the reliability of a professional musician: Brexit means freedom from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and control over Britain’s borders, two objectives that can only be achieved as a result of Britain’s exit not only from the EU but also the single market. This was confirmed on 17 January in the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech in London.

David Cameron used to say that he would never have “a people”. Certainly, there is no Cameroon tendency in the country at large to match the generation of council house residents that became homeowners and lifelong Conservatives because of Margaret Thatcher and Right to Buy. However, there is, unquestionably, a Cameroon people or faction to be found at almost every rung of London’s financial services sector or at editorial meetings of the Economist, though it as at the Times and the Sun where the treatment of May is at its most noticably rougher than in the Cameron era. 

Michael Gove, her old rival, is not only employed as a columnist by the Times; he enjoys the confidence and admiration of Rupert Murdoch. That the Times secured the first British interview with Donald Trump was a coup for Murdoch, an old associate of the president-elect, and for Gove, who conducted it. It left May in the unlovely position of making history as the first prime minister to be scooped to a first meeting with a new American president by a sitting MP in modern times. It also attested to a source of frustration among May’s allies that she is, for all her undoubted popularity, still ignored or doubted by much of the right-wing establishment.

That condescension partly explains why her words are often listened to briefly, acted on hastily and swiftly forgotten, hence the pound’s cycle of falling when she makes an intervention on Brexit and rising shortly thereafter. The Lancaster House speech was designed to break this pattern. Downing Street briefed the most potent paragraphs at the weekend so that the markets could absorb what she would say before she said it.

As a result, the pound rallied as May delivered her speech, which contained a commitment to a transitional deal that would come into effect after Britain has left the EU. Some financiers believe this arrangement could become permanent, which once again demonstrates how much they underestimate May’s ability to enforce her will.

Being underestimated by Cameron’s people, in Westminster and the City, has the unintended effect of shoring up Theresa May’s position. A prolonged and sustained bout of panic would increase the pressure for a soft landing, but its absence makes it harder for Labour to oppose her effectively, although it has largely acquiesced to the Tory plan for Brexit, at least as far as membership of the single market is concerned. 

Yet for all the plaudits that the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech attracted, for all her undoubted popularity in the country, she is in the anomalous position of being a Conservative Prime Minister who has priorities on the European stage other than the preservation of the City of London and to whom Rupert Murdoch is not a natural ally.

As such, she may find that her deadlier enemies come from the right.

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