PMQs review: Cameron dodges questions on tax avoidance

Miliband compared Cameron's blind eye over the current HSBC tax avoidance scandal with the employment of ex-News of the World editor, Andy Coulson.  

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As expected, the revelations of how HSBC allowed its Swiss banking arm to collude in multimillion pound tax dodging dominated PMQs this afternoon. The Tories might have been purring with confidence last week, as George reported, but Miliband managed to take the lead this week. 

By accusing Cameron of being at the centre of “something rotten” and comparing the Tories' “blind eye” over the issue of tax avoidance with the employment of Andy Coulson (ex-News of the World editor), Miliband just about managed to break through Cameron’s defences.

Miliband – hoping to ratchet up pressure on Cameron over HSBC – began by asking the PM to explain the “revolving door between the Conservatives and tax avoidance.” This was met by some aggressive heckling on both sides of the Commons. Miliband said that seven Tory donors – who held HSBC accounts with the Swiss branch – donated over £5m to the party. But Cameron quickly responded by saying that one of those on the list was Lord Paul, who helped fund Gordon Brown’s election campaign. A good defence. 

Miliband went on to press Cameron over the appointment of Lord Green, the former head of the HSBC bank, as trade minister months after Revenue and Customs apparently became aware of wrongdoing at the bank. But the PM, in effort to avoid answering whether he had conversations with Green, went on to say: “this is desperate stuff”. He accused Miliband of not wanting to talk about the economy and unemployment (groan). Miliband said:

He can’t get away from it. He’s a dodgy Prime Minister surrounded by dodgy donors. Now, he didn’t just take the money. He appointed the man who was head of HSBC as a minister. Mr Speaker, it was in the public domain in September 2010 that HSBC was enabling tax avoidance on an industrial scale.

Cameron went on later to say that: “unlike Labour donors, Tory donors don’t pick the party leader. Miliband is leader because the unions decided he is more leftwing than his brother.” This is likely to have something to do an increased Labour reliance on trade unions as the party’s wealthy business backers flee. The FT pointed out this morning that Labour received just £8.7m from private donors in the current session, compared with £20.7m in the same period of the last parliament.

The PM continued by mocking Miliband for failing to accompany Ed Balls and Chuka Umunna during the conference at the British Chambers of Commerce yesterday. But, it’s worth pointing out, that Miliband had always planned to miss the BCC event. Cameron also added: "they can't even talk to women because they've got a pink bus touring the country." But, as Anoosh pointed out this morning: Yes, it's bright and pink and looks silly, but at least Labour has a women's campaign bus.

Cameron might have been well prepared, with some good evidence, but his shifty position over his dealings with Green worked in Miliband's favour. And the PM's spokesperson didn't help matters: speaking to journalists following PMQs, he insisted that Cameron had answered the question over whether he discussed HSBC tax with Green: "He was asked the question and he gave his answer."

Ashley Cowburn writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2014. He tweets @ashcowburn