Mark Steel: I think it's time we put Lord Ashcroft's money to better use

And this from a Tory party whose slogan is 'We're all in it together'

Wednesday 03 March 2010 01:00

I'm not an expert on electoral law, but as Lord Ashcroft has been avoiding tax and funding the Tories instead, that means the Tory electoral campaign is being paid for with our money. So surely we should have the right to decide what's in the campaign.

We could put up posters of Ashcroft in the House of Lords with a target over him, while a menacing voice said "Non-domicile tax cheats – it's time to close in." Or get Douglas Hogg to look forlornly by his castle, muttering "Since I've had to stop claiming expenses my moat's got absolutely filthy – We can't go on like this."

Or we could just entertain the kids with a party political broadcast in which Michael Howard gets chased through the woods by a puma.

Leading Tories dismiss Ashcroft's tax dodge as a minor issue. But in the year 2000, when this first came up, William Hague, then leader of the party, said unequivocally that Ashcroft had made assurances that would be worth, "Tens of millions to the Treasury". To be fair, Hague was telling the truth, he just forgot to mention he meant the Treasury of Belize.

So despite a letter from Ashcroft promising to move his finances to Britain, in return for a seat in the House of Lords, he kept them where they were. Now he's had to admit this, as it was about to revealed anyway as a result of the Freedom of Information Act, but Tory leader David Cameron's response to the revelation on Monday was "I'm glad it's now cleared up."

And this is the party of Law and Order. So presumably under the Tories, if you're in court and the trial's going badly, you'll be able to say: "To tell you the truth your honour, the reason my alibi appears to be falling apart is I did actually do the murder." And the judge will say: "Ah well, thank goodness that's cleared up, hee hee. Now then, let's all retire to my club for some light refreshments."

But for the leading Tories it can't have even needed clearing up. It's nine years since Ashcroft made this promise. Seeing as he's a major donor and the deputy chairman, someone during that time must have asked him whether he'd got round to keeping it.

It's as if a party had been funded by Pete Doherty for the last nine years, and the leader said: "I've not really thought to ask him whether he's been involved with drugs in any way. It's not a subject that ever cropped up."

According to Cameron, a person's tax status, "Is between him and the Inland Revenue". As if it's some sort of civil liberty issue. Maybe he'll make an iconic, inspiring speech that goes "Brothers and sisters, PAYE, self-employed and exiles, I have a dream. It is a dream of a day when a man may compile a billion pounds and hoist it out of the country to avoid paying tax while sitting in an unelected position in parliament, then promise to bring it back but not do so while funding a party that supports tax cuts, and NOT be faced with having to explain themselves, which is a violation of their basic human rights. Brothers and sisters, are you with me in this struggle?"

How does Ashcroft explain his decision to set up an off-shore account in the first place as anything other than act of naked greed? Maybe he'd say it was nothing to do with tax and he put it in Belize because it was nearer the shops. And how do the Tories, a party that's obsessively patriotic, justify having a deputy chairman who goes to such vast lengths to keep so much of his earnings away from our taxman? I bet that even if he does put his account here, he'll say that as his money's had to move to Britain it's got to claim on expenses for a second home.

The only consolation for the Tories is that Labour can't gain as much as they'd like from this, partly because they've appointed Peter Mandelson to attack them on it. How typically Labour, to use as their spokesman the one person in the world you'd trust even less with a billion pounds than Ashcroft himself.

And all of this comes from the party that rallies behind the slogan "We're all in it together." Because who amongst us, in these belt-tightening times, hasn't been forced to slip a billion quid across to Central America to avoid tax?

Just this morning my neighbour, a retired cleaner depending on her pension, said, "Dear oh dear, I've got to go all the way up to the Post Office again to transfer ten million quid to Belize, otherwise I'll have to pay tax on it. Honestly, at my age you'd think they'd get a home help to do it for me. Still, we've all got to pull together."

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