Call this a scandal? A few years ago, it wouldn’t have made the cut. If any reporter had taken the David Cameron tax ‘scoop’ into the now-defunct News of the World, he would have been laughed out of the building.
‘OK, just run it by me again. The Prime Minister’s dad was a stockbroker, right? Daddy Cameron operated this fund in Panama, or somewhere, and Dave had a few shares in it. Then before Dave became Prime Minister, he sold the shares and made a profit of 19 grand, after paying full capital gains tax in Britain. Where’s the story?’
‘Don’t you “But boss” me. I’m trying to sell newspapers here. Bring me shagging, bring me sex’n’drugs in high places, bring me something they’ll be talking about down the Dog & Duck. Not this garbage.’
We’ve come a long way from Christine Keeler, the call girl who poleaxed the Conservative defence secretary John Profumo in 1961. If, instead of consorting with hookers, Profumo had been found to have intimate knowledge of offshore tax jurisdictions, he wouldn’t have been consigned to lifelong political oblivion — he’d have been made Chief Secretary to the Treasury.
Admittedly, public mores have undergone a tectonic shift in the past decade or so. But the tastes of the newspaper-buying public haven’t changed that much. Sex sells. Confected stories concerning tax avoidance don’t.
I’ve always had a simple theory about front-page headlines. If you can imagine a news vendor shouting it at Liverpool Street station, you’re in business. If not, forget it.
Thus: ‘Married minister in sleazy knee-trembler with dominatrix! Read all about it!’ You’re off to the races. ‘Minister in complicated, perfectly legal shares deal shock!’ Nah, I’ve got a train to catch.
But even this tried and tested formula no longer holds. It has been revealed this week that before he became Culture Secretary, John Whittingdale went out with a woman he met on the dating site Match.com — until he discovered that she was indeed a professional dominatrix. He says that when he found out her occupation he ended the relationship. (I suppose there’s always the possibility that she dumped him when she found out he was a Tory politician.)
A number of newspapers investigated the liaison but decided not to publish because Whittingdale was a single divorced man and, in the post-Leveson hysteria, it would be difficult to argue that the story was in the public interest.
This has sent the anti-free-press Hacked Off crowd into apoplexy, claiming the papers held off because they were trying to blackmail Whittingdale, who was previously chairman of the Commons culture committee, which oversees the media.
Yet the story was put into the public domain by the BBC, which is now under pressure from Whittingdale, and in the normal course of events would take a very dim view of any newspaper which wrote about a minister’s sex life. So for once Fleet Street is being attacked for being responsible! Talk about pots and kettles. It only goes to prove that the row about privacy is purely politically motivated and nothing to do with the rights of individuals to freedom from un-warranted scrutiny.
We live in interesting times, as the Chinese say. Had Cameron learned anything from his days as PR man to Michael Green at Carlton, he would have got out in front of the tax story sooner. By waiting until the truth was pulled from him like a particularly stubborn wisdom tooth, he turned a non-event into a political drama. He behaved like a man about to have his collar felt and was treated accordingly by the press. That’s his own stupid fault. Cameron’s prevarication sent the Pavlovian piranhas of the parliamentary lobby into a feeding frenzy.
The Prime Minister has now allowed himself to be panicked into disclosing his past six years’ tax returns, which tell us precisely nothing we couldn’t have found out already — if anyone had bothered to look. His salary and his income from renting out his home in North Kensington are both matters of public record.
George Osborne and others have followed suit, in the interests of ‘transparency’, you understand. We’re still none the wiser. We don’t know how much the Chancellor benefits from his interest in the family wallpaper firm. But frankly, why should we? Provided he’s not passing tax laws that line the pockets of himself and his family, it’s none of our damn business.
I’d argue that Tony Blair’s introduction of the Human Rights Act, which enabled his wife to set up a legal chambers that would profit from the resulting flood of cases — often in the form of taxpayer-funded legal aid — was a bigger issue than anything involving Cameron and his crew.
Of course, we have a right to know if our elected representatives stand to make any financial gain from the legislation they bring on to the statute books. That’s what the register of members’ interests is for. Over and above that, there’s no good reason why they should have to make public their personal tax returns.
By capitulating to the politics-of-resentment lynch mob, Cameron has established a dangerous precedent, which has set in train a clamour for universal ‘transparency’. It is impossible to predict where all this madness will end. Already, otherwise sane commentators such as Matthew Parris of this parish are giving succour to those who would strip every individual in this country of any last vestige of privacy — at least when it comes to their tax affairs.
We are seeing a kind of competitive self-exposure: I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.
One could be forgiven for thinking that Boris Johnson has thoroughly enjoyed releasing his financial records, which reveal that he has paid almost £1 million in income tax over the past four years. The glee with which Boris his published his earnings reminds me of the boorish Brummie millionaire played by Harry Enfield who was always boasting: ‘Oi am considerably richer than yeow.’
Since this ‘scandal’ broke, a number of observers have quoted Sir Thomas Macaulay’s famous remark: ‘We know no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodic fits of morality.’ But they’re all well wide of the mark.
This is the political class, not the British public, in one of its periodic fits of morality. Outside the Westminster bubble, the press and the BBC, the fallout from the Panama Papers is getting little purchase — other than to reinforce the impression that those we pay to represent us are increasingly out of touch with the real world.
Labour is trying to capitalise by portraying Cameron and the Tories as a bunch of rich boys who couldn’t care less about the common herd and will do anything to protect their wealth and privilege. That’s been Cameron’s presentational problem since he became Tory leader, but it hasn’t stopped voters putting him in to Downing Street at the last two general elections.
No doubt were he to stand a third time, which he says he won’t, he’d have no trouble defeating a Labour opposition led by the hair-shirt 1970s throwback Jeremy Corbyn and the ludicrous Tom Watson.
Inevitably, Watson — Labour’s nonce-finder general — has been in the vanguard of his party’s attempts to smear Cameron as a tax-evading toff. He is without shame when it comes to implicating the Tories in serial wrongdoing.
His hypocrisy, as always, is breathtaking. Compared with the Parliamentary expenses scandal, this latest bout of moral outrage is small beer. Readers may remember Watson’s enormous claims for food. He spent so much in Marks & Sparks that they gave him a free pizza wheel. More pertinently, Watson and another Labour MP claimed £100,000 for a shared London flat and charged taxpayers for the legal fees involved in buying the freehold.
If and when they sell the property, they will have no obligation to repay the free money they have received and will be allowed to keep the profit, which could be substantial. It will certainly dwarf the £19,000 Cameron made from his father’s investment fund.
Watson is front and centre when it comes to demanding full ‘transparency’ over taxes. Yet he’s also a leading light in Hacked Off. His idea of the public’s right to know is whatever he thinks it should know. He has a curiously flexible attitude towards privacy.
So David Cameron’s mother’s private financial affairs are fair game. But Ulrika Jonsson’s text messages to her hairdresser are sacrosanct and any journalist who attempts to make them public must be subject to the full force of the criminal law.
Watson used parliamentary privilege to claim that there was a ‘powerful paedophile network linked to Parliament and No 10’ under the Tories. He was instrumental in setting in motion the deranged ‘historic’ investigation by Scotland Yard against leading establishment figures including Lord Bramall, a 92-year-old war hero. He didn’t mind invading their privacy in the worst way imaginable, by falsely accusing them of heinous crimes and subjecting them to heavy–handed police searches and reputational damage.
No, I’m not condoning phone hacking. I’m merely trying to point to the double standards of Watson and others who have appointed themselves the arbiters of both the right to privacy and the need for ‘transparency’.
There is a serious debate to be had about the extent of privacy and the public’s right to know, but this isn’t it. On the one hand, the courts are using the human rights act to create European-style privacy laws, which will largely protect the rich and powerful. On the other, the state is intruding ever more deeply into our affairs. Only this week we learn that a number of councils have bought drones to fly over our properties, ostensibly to check for breaches of planning regulations. Tell that to the woman at No. 43, innocently sunbathing topless on her patio. If that’s not a genuine invasion of privacy, I don’t know what is. Soon they’ll be making our tax returns, and then our medical records, public. We’re getting into the realms of ‘those who have nothing to hide have nothing to fear’ — the mantra of tyrannies down the ages.
Yet at the same time, according to the new rules of behaviour, a politician like Lord Sewel — hilariously the chairman of the Lords’ standards committee — caught in a compromising sex’n’drugs scandal is entitled to privacy because he is guilty of nothing more than an ‘error of judgment’. But a Prime Minister who perfectly properly sells some shares and pays all taxes due deserves to be torn limb from limb.
Meanwhile, away from the politico-media menagerie, I’ve not been aware of much chatter about Cameron’s tax affairs. The public is far more interested in the identity of the celebrity who has taken out a superinjunction to conceal extramarital sexual shenanigans. Even though the rest of the planet, including Scotland, is in on the secret, the people of England and Wales are not to be trusted with the information.
In the real world threesomes in an olive-oil filled paddling pool are infinitely more fascinating than offshore investment trusts.
Maybe we haven’t moved as far away from Christine Keeler as we like to pretend.
Richard Littlejohn is a columnist for the Daily Mail.