Publishing his tax affairs won't be enough to get David Cameron off the hook

The Prime Minister is in a bad spot, though next week may bring him breathing space. 

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After enduring the worst week of his political career, David Cameron’s decision to release a summary of his tax returns is intended to stem the bleeding.

But that he hasn’t released the full return means that the row will rumble on – and this morning, John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, and Angus Robertson, the leader of the SNP group at Westminster, have both called on the Cabinet to follow suit.

McDonnell’s team in particular have a spring in their steps today, and they’re entitled to. Their boss’ decision to publish his tax return is now paying dividends and the shadow chancellor’s improved television performances were in full display on Sky News’ Murnaghan programme this morning. The comparison between McDonnell and Corbyn’s tax returns with their Conservative opposite numbers will be a painful dividing line for Cameron and George Osborne – particularly as the Chancellor of the Exchequer has yet to publish his tax returns.

The row will hurt Cameron – but not necessarily for the reasons that you might expect. Voters have always seen the Tories as the “party of the rich” – when BritainThinks’ focus groups were asked to identify groups that would do well under the parties, the “posh couple on Gogglebox” is singled out time and time again as the one that would benefit the most from Conservative governments. The success of Cameron’s leadership has been to convince voters that “families like them” would also do well under a Tory government.

That Boris Johnson, a largely peripheral figure in the row over tax avoidance thus far, is just as distrusted when it comes to “tackling tax havens” according to the polls suggests that softness on the rich is baked into the Conservative brand as far as voters are concerned. And, as I wrote on Friday, the evidence is that the decline in Cameron’s personal ratings is the result not of the Panama row, but his pro-Europeanism.

Still, the furore over his family’s tax affairs will hurt the Prime Minister, and badly. Why?

If the storm continues, it feels likely that there may have be a public airing of the tax affairs not only of the Prime Minister, but of the Cabinet as well. While Cameron’s affairs are within the law it may be that his Cabinet fares less well. And increasing the pressure on Conservative MPs to publish their returns will stoke resentment in that quarter. There is already a greal deal of ill feeling on the government benches about Cameron’s highhandedness about second jobs and the continuing rejection of pay rises for MPs, despite frequent reccomendations from Ipsa, the independent body that sets parliamentarians’ salaries. Many will feel they are in the hot seat because of their leader’s less than nimble response to questions about his tax affairs.

All of which puts further doubt on Cameron’s chances of stepping down at a time of his choosing. I’m inclined to disagree with Helen on this: an earlier resignation from Cameron helps Labour.

Not least because despite his maladroit handling of this tax row, Cameron remains the best all-round politician on the Tory side and anything that gets him out of the fray quickly is good news for Labour. But also because, whether you are a shampoo or a political party, the most powerful word you can attach to yourself is “new”. If Cameron can stick around until 2019 or even until January 2020, his replacement will benefit from being able to present themselves as the box-fresh alternative to the Labour leader, who, in my view, is more likely than not to either be Jeremy Corbyn or his virtual co-leader John McDonnell, both of whom will have been around for five years.

But it may be that Cameron finds a twin respite: Parliament returns from the Easter recess on Monday, and the news desert that has caused Cameron’s tax affairs to dominate will fade away.

And I’m inclined to think that Corbyn erred in suggesting that the tax returns of journalists should also be published – although I’m also inclined to agree with him – as hacks, like most people, prefer to talk about themselves rather than politics or policy. It may be that Corbyn has traded editorials and columnists from the right-wing press attacking Cameron’s less-than-transparent tax affairs to ones talking about the importance of privacy and tax opacity. It could very well be that those two distractions means that Cameron’s leadership ends next week in much better shape than it is right now.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics. He also co-hosts the New Statesman podcast.

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