The latest instalment in the soap opera over Lord Ashcroft’s tax status came last night when the former Conservative leader William Hague admitted on Radio 4’s The World Tonight that he had only recently discovered the terms of the arrangement that allow Ashcroft to avoid paying full tax.
Asked whether Ashcroft’s public statement on Monday was the “first he had known” of it, Hague said: “Well, I knew in advance of that,” and went on to admit that he had known for the “last few months”.
Some of the media coverage has focused on the fact that Hague, who vociferously pushed for Ashcroft’s peerage in 2000, was kept in the dark by his close friend for nearly a decade. But surely the real scandal is that in the “last few months”, as journalists and the opposition have turned up the heat on the issue, Hague has repeatedly evaded the question by denying any knowledge of Ashcroft’s tax status.
Let’s just compare Hague’s recent statements on the matter.
Last night on Radio 4’s The World Tonight:
Over the last few months I knew and, after that, of course I was very keen to support him in making that position public.
One month ago (7 February) on the Andrew Marr Show:
Andrew Marr: . . . does he pay tax as a British taxpayer, as a British citizen? Which is a very straightforward question.
William Hague: Well, I’ll give you another clear statement, which is that when he was made a peer in the year 2000, he was asked to give certain guarantees about that and he then implemented those guarantees — and he’s assured me that he did. Although what they were in detail was defined between him and the Inland Revenue at the time. I am not a party to that any more than the —
AM (over): But he’s a very key figure.
WH: — Labour Party is a party to all those people in the House of Lords, some of whom are non-domiciled and so on, but who give donations to the Labour Party.
Hague has yet to clarify exactly what he means by “last few months”, but unless he’s using a different calendar from the rest of us, it’s fair to assume that he knew considerably more than he was letting on.