The David Cameron tax row is really about Brexit

Why did the prime minister's tax affairs, first revealed in 2012, become a huge news story four years later? One word: Europe.

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On Sunday night at the Kings Place headquarters of the Guardian, journalists prepared to publish the first revelations from the "Panama Papers", leaked documents from the financial firm Mossack Fonseca. It was the end of a long journey, and the timing of publication had to be carefully co-ordinated with media partners such as the BBC and the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung

But they were sure they had a cracking story - one that would lead the news agenda for days. It concerned a network of friends surrounding Russian president Vladimir Putin, and how they accrued $2bn in assets. 

Yes, that's right. The big target for the Guardian on its first, key day of publishing the Panama Papers was not David Cameron, who has just been forced to release his tax returns after a week of relentless pressure over his late father's Blairmore fund. In fact, David Cameron's name did not appear in any of the Guardian front page stories on Monday. The sole reference to him was a quote, which turned to a page 4 story about his vow in 2012 to crackdown on offshore wealth.

Why the startling omission? Could it be that the Guardian worried that David Cameron's involvement with an offshore fund was old news? After all, they had already written about it in 2012.

To its great credit, the Guardian (along with the Times and Private Eye) has been doggedly exposing tax avoidance for many years, pouring reporting resources into the project. And four years ago, Ed Howker and Shiv Malik uncovered a startling fact - the prime minister had benefited from an investment fund, started while he was still at school, which had been established in Panama, a notorious tax haven. They even got a comment from Downing Street, which anyone who has followed the week's news will find familiar: "Downing Street said it did not want to comment on what was a private matter for the Cameron family."

But perhaps you missed all this - understandably - because the story generated little pick-up at the time. (The NS wrote it up, noting that Sally Bercow came out in defence of the prime minister, but furious reactions were largely confined to left-wing independent blogs). 

So what has changed this week? Well, there is a complex alchemy involved in divining why any particular news story gets "traction". What else is happening when it is published? At the moment in politics, very little. It's been Easter recess and in any case the parliamentary timetable has been pruned to allow for months of Euro-campaigning. What larger narrative does the individual story play into? There is no doubt that tax avoidance has moved up the political agenda in the last four years. The tax affairs of celebrities such as Jimmy Carr and Gary Barlow were revealed by the Times, leading to calls for the latter to be stripped of his OBE. The Chancellor has consistently inveighed against it, and books such as Nicholas Shaxson's 2011 Treasure Islands have been widely read. 

The final question is always: who are we attacking? Here, the timing matters. The David Cameron of 2012 who was linked to an offshore fund is not the David Cameron of 2016. Then, he was just two years into a government which billed itself as a radically reforming one, saving the country from the perilous overspending of Labour. The print press (which is dominated by Conservative-friendly outlets) was, if not supportive, then at least open to his message, particularly as he tried to convince the country that "austerity" was the medicine it needed to swallow.

The Cameron of 2016 is a very different man. Gratitude has a short half-life, and already any lingering appreciation for the unexpected feat he achieved in May - a (small) overall majority for his government, the first since 1992 - has faded. Now he is, effectively, The Face Of Remain - while Brexit is supported by dozens of his own MPs, including a handful of Cabinet ministers, along with many influential columnists.

For Brexiteers, there is a clear political interest in anything which discredits the Prime Minister: by doing so, they dent his ability to present himself as an honest broker, above partisan bickering, who is nonetheless wholeheartedly recommending a "Remain" vote to the British people. (Following the tax row and the Tata steel controversy, Cameron's stock has undoubtedly fallen: his approval rating is now lower than Jeremy Corbyn's.)

Even among those for whom Europe is not a defining issue, there is another reason why harrying the Cameron of 2016 is more interesting than harrying the Cameron of 2012. This latter incarnation is wounded, vulnerable: he has already said he will not serve a third term, and it is now questionable if his MPs will allow him to continue after the referendum at all, particularly in the event of a vote to Leave. He feels already like a man on the downward slope.

Not that lefties should rejoice wholeheartedly at the thought of Cameron's resignation - which Socialist Worker banners were calling for outside Downing Street on Saturday. In the run-up to the 1992 election, replacing the polarising figure of Margaret Thatcher with the relatively new face of John Major is partially credited with preventing a Tory defeat. Labour's strategy for returning to office relies on pointing out the record of the Conservatives in power, and contrasting that with their own projected credibility as an alternative. That is easier against David Cameron and Geoge Osborne than it would be against, say, Boris Johnson or Nicky Morgan. A new leader might be able to leap free of the unpopular decisions made by the government, and leave the opposition struggling to frame a counter-argument. 

If you think the idea of left-wingers feeling reservations about calling for a Tory prime minister to resign is warping your brain, well - welcome to my world. That's how I've felt all week. I believe strongly that tax avoidance and other perfectly legal dodges are corrosive to our trust in political and economic institutions, and they should be exposed and condemned. But it is hard to join a hue and cry against Cameron's tax arrangements led by people who clearly didn't think it was a story in 2012. 

Helen Lewis is a former deputy editor of the New Statesman, who is now a staff writer on the Atlantic. Her history of feminism, Difficult Women, will be published in February 2020.

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