The big news this morning should have been David Cameron’s speech from Spring Forum. At least that’s what the Tory high command would have liked. They wanted the headlines and the coverage of Cameron for a day. They would have got it too, except for one spanner in the works. Nobody told Michael Ashcroft. And he chose today to finally admit to the fact – long suspected – that he holds non-domecile tax status. The reason this is such a big deal isn’t because of his tax-status in itself. And it’s not that he’s just a donor to the Conservative party. It’s that he’s a huge donor. And he has a seat at the Tory table. As vice-chair of the party, he’s been given charge of the campaign in the marginals where he’s pouring money in.
Persistent questions on Ashcroft’s tax status have always been ignored by the man himself. Tony Blair initially denied William Hague’s request for Ashcroft’s peerage, deeming him unsuitable. The only reason he was given the peerage was that he gave assurances to Hague he would take up permanent residence in the UK. Since then, the Tories have maintained the line that Ashcroft had complied with this agreement. Lord Ashcroft today says that he interpreted this as meaning becoming a ‘long-term resident’ but not a full taxpayer. The Tory party are yet to confirm whether they were aware of this distinction.
Right wing rebuttal attempts were made this morning by attempting to muddy the waters with comparisons between Ashcroft and Labour peer Lord Swraj Paul. This comparison fails on a number of counts. First, Lord Paul has always been open about his tax status where Ashcroft has tried desperately to hide his. Secondly, donations to the Labour Party have come from Paul’s family owned company which pays full UK tax as a trading business. Ashcroft’s money has come from a company set up with the sole purpose of channeling overseas money into Conservative coffers and is not a trading business in the UK. This company is currently under investigation by the Electoral Commission. Thirdly, the amount Lord Paul has donated is tiny in comparison to the amounts Lord Ashcroft has piled into the Tory party over the years. Fourth, Lord Paul does not have a chair in Labour Party head office and is not involved in the election campaign other than as a party member. Lord Ashcroft is vice-chair of his party and is in sole charge of a targeted and expensive – £6million in 2 years – campaign in the marginal seats. And today’s statement hasn’t been made because Ashcroft decided it was right to do. There was no seeing-of-the-light. What there was is a freedom of information request to the Cabinet Office for the papers relating to his peerage.
None of this reflects well on Team Cameron. For over 10 years they have dissembled over Ashcroft’s tax status on his insistence. There have been lots of opportunities to put out a statement just like todays, but they have always fudged the answer to the oft-asked question. In recent times, Cameron has reduced the amount of money taken from Ashcroft. So today Conservative statistics are all about how much he’s donated in the last year. Not the last ten. The public aren’t that gullible though, despite what the Tory leadership might think. Even recently when Sir George Young accidentally confirmed Lord Ashcroft’s non-dom status on Newsnight, the party hierarchy denied it saying Young had spoken in error. That correction of Young wasn’t an error. It was a lie. Out-and-out. If Cameron is happy to lie about that, what else is he happy to lie about?