After the self-inflicted harm of recent days, David Cameron has decided that attack is the best form of defence. In his statement on tax to the Commons, he damned Labour as “the enemy of aspiration” and of “families who want to support each other”. The Prime Minister is not wrong to believe that the public will instinctively sympathise with the Camerons’ legal attempt to avoid inheritance tax (a loathed and feared levy). But the many whose fathers have never held offshore investment funds may be less inclined to approve.
Cameron made an emotional defence of his late relative, decrying “deeply hurtful and untrue” allegations and hailing him as a “hard working man and a wonderful dad”. He sardonically noted that liberal pillars such as the Guardian, the Mirror Group and Islington Council (singled out as Jeremy Corbyn’s home borough) also held offshore investment funds. But the public will likely conclude that multiple wrongs do not make a right . As Cameron knows, his delay in confessing that he did benefit from the sale of shares in his father’s trust has created the ineradicable impression that he is (rightly) ashamed.
In his response to the PM, unlike on other occasions, Corbyn made the essential point. The austerity of recent times, he declared, could have been avoided “if our country hadn’t been ripped off by the super-rich”. Cameron, of course, paid all the tax that was due on his shares but it is the perception, not the reality, that counts. Oddly, however, Corbyn chose not to note that both Cameron and George Osborne (whose tax return was published minutes before the PM started speaking) are now confirmed as having benefited from the abolition of the 50p rate. It was left to the Labour leader’s erstwhile rival Yvette Cooper to deploy this attack from the backbenches.
Though Cameron cuts a diminished figure after his humbling, he still emerged strengthened from the Commons. By swiftly ruling out any move to compel MPs to publish their tax returns (to the immense relief of Tory backbenchers), he settled his restive party. No Conservative rose to decry Cameron’s behaviour and the party jeered Corbyn in unison. Far more dangerous for the PM remains the threat of Brexit – a fate that his recent tribulations only make more likely.