The Tories have prevaricated for years over Michael Ashcroft’s tax status but their time is running out.
The Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham, has ordered the Cabinet Office to reveal within 35 days the nature of the “undertaking” Ashcroft made to end his tax-exile status when he became a peer. The ruling concludes that the public interest in Ashcroft and his position in the Tory party outweighs any individual right to privacy on the matter.
David Cameron’s failure to get a grip on this issue is one of the biggest moral and strategic blunders of his leadership. First, it provides Labour and the Lib Dems with a line of attack they can use repeatedly in the run-up to the election. Second, it antagonises Tory backbenchers who note the special treatment extended to Ashcroft, treatment that is in marked contrast to the tough line Cameron has taken on expenses.
Last month, in a typical piece of obfuscation, the Tory leader said:
Lord Ashcroft’s tax status is a matter between him and the Inland Revenue. What I can say and what he has said is that the undertakings he gave at the time of being made a peer are undertakings that he is meeting.
By contrast, when it emerged that Zac Goldsmith was claiming non-dom tax status he was ordered by Cameron to give this up “as a matter of urgency”.
It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Cameron has been running scared of Ashcroft, once described by Peter Oborne as “the man who bought the Tory party”. The Conservatives have gained little and lost much from this affair. That Cameron has allowed it to drag on for so long raises questions about his integrity — and his judgement.