It is too late now for David Cameron to do very much about the damage to his reputation from the so-called Panama papers. The charge is a simple one: hypocrisy. And while no-one expects any politician to be entirely free of cant, the chasm between what the prime minister has been saying about tax avoidance in public on the one hand and his family’s private financial affairs on the other is an awesome one - even by the debased standards of political life.
No-one, it is fair to say, is accusing the prime minster of doing anything illegal. The offshore vehicle his father created, the romantically named Blairmore Trust, was indeed an example of tax avoidance rather than evasion, though of course Mr Cameron and George Osborne have condemned tax avoidance in recent times.
The answers that Mr Cameron gave to Sky News about his financial affairs were, though, opaque and more than a little confusing. If neither Mr Cameron nor any of his family would benefit from an offshore trust, then what might the point of it be? Is it the sort of interest that should be declared to the Parliament and public? How much taxation has the exchequer been deprived of by the existence of the trust?
Certainly much more needs to be known about the Blairmore trust and, as the most prominent figure in public life, Mr Cameron should set an example by disclosing full details of it and its history. Nothing less will answer the many questions that remain tantalisingly unanswered.
Maximum transparency is the only way for the prime minister if he is to prevent this damaging episode growing ever more lethal to his position. It makes him, and his party, resemble the sort of Eton, Oxford and Bullingdon caricature toffs club that his enemies like to portray it as. One of the most prominent weaknesses of the modern Conservative Party is the perception, and, to a degree, visible reality, that its leadership has little in common with the people they govern, and little sympathy for them either. The contrast with a Damascene Iain Duncan Smith, who, we learn, wept over the plight of a single mother this week, is striking.
So Mr Cameron should stop dodging the questions and publish details of his entire financial assets, including those which are now under scrutiny. After that, parliament should look once again at the disclosure of its members’ interests, extending the ambit of the rules to include tax avoidance vehicles which are connected with the MPs and their families.
After the expenses scandals of a few years ago, after the “cash for questions” affair a little further back, and various more routine examples of financial arrangements that the public find unacceptable, our elected representatives have to demonstrate that they are paying their fair share of tax while they ask that the rest of us do the same.
Our MPs should also publish their tax returns, some of which would make for interesting reading. Of course this is an intrusion into their privacy – but in this case thoroughly justified one in the wider public interest.
We need to know, and have a right to know, what beneficial interests they enjoy; and that includes their interest in maintaining tax secrecy and the way British overseas territories run their affairs – many of these tax havens are indeed still, in effect, self-governing British colonies.
It will be one small step in the long road to ending the global tax dodging that deprives every government of the funds it needs to care for its population, shifting the burden of tax form the very rich to the middle classes. Weren’t the Conservatives supposed to look after them?
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