Nick Cohen

David Cameron’s one law for the rich shows he doesn’t understand the British

David Cameron’s one law for the rich shows he doesn’t understand the British
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The great historian of the Soviet Union Robert Conquest’s Third Law of Politics reads:

'The simplest way to explain the behaviour of any bureaucratic organization is to assume that it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies.'

I have tested Conquest’s law on every bureaucracy I have covered, and it has always held up: nowhere more so than in the case of the British Conservative Party. The only way to explain it is to assume that agents of the Left, determined to lead it to destruction, have seized its leadership.

The Conservatives are entering a tight election with one heavy burden. The public see them as the party of the plutocracy. On its own this would not be such a handicap. Very few people just hate the rich for being rich. They will accept them, if and only if, they abide by the same rules as everyone else.

The task for Cameron was to stay on the right side of public opinion by treating the citizenry without fear or favour. I’ve noticed before how many expressions there are in English which rail against the double-standards of the advantaged. Cameron should have learned them by rote too.

He's trying it on. He’s taking us for fools. He’s taking a liberty. He’s taking advantage. He’s taking the mickey. He’s taking the pis...

I’m sure you take the point. The absolute priority for an expensively educated Tory leadership was to squash the suspicion of double standards. It had to borrow from Tony Blair and show that it was tough on tax crime and tough on the causes of tax crime. Look at the result:

  • Cameron makes Stephen Green a peer and minister. Put aside all the private Swiss bank accounts HSBC was running. In 2012, a US Senate report showed that HSBC continued to operate hundreds of accounts with suspected links to Mexican drug cartels, even after Green and fellow executives were told by regulators that theirs was one of the worst banks for money laundering. The report was hardly a secret. My colleague Jamie Doward put it on the front page of the Observer.
  • Cameron presided over a Revenue and Customs Service, which as a matter of policy, did not send tax criminals to court. Margaret Hodge, of the Public Accounts Committee, told Lin Homer of HMRC, that her failure to pursue prosecutions in favour of private settlements was sending 'a really rotten message' to wealthy investors. 'You are saying: "It’s a risk worth taking – the worst that can happen to you if HMRC can be bothered to catch up with you, is that you may have to pay, you won’t have a prosecution, you won’t have any shame, you won’t be an example to anybody else, you’ll get away with it.” No you won’t. Are there any other crimes, where the deterrent effect of prosecutions is ignored with such insouciance?
  • When the Swiss scandal broke the leader of a Tory Party that was not in the control of a cabal of its enemies would have said: 'There is one law for all in this country. If Stephen Green is found to have broken it, or behaved in a disreputable manner, I will expel him from the Conservative Party. If HSBC is suspected of committing corporate crimes, I will ensure the police investigate them. In the meantime, I will summon tax officials to Downing Street to explain why they have authorised just one prosecution and collected £2 billion less than they expected to bring in. Under my government hard-working, hard-up taxpayers will never subsidise criminals.'
  • David Cameron said nothing of the sort. Instead, he threw a fund-raising ball for hedge fund tycoons, bankers and porn barons that made him look like a high-class hooker. Financiers paid up to £1,500 ticket. They bid extraordinary amounts for pheasant shoots, nights at Annabels and stays at a Verbier chalet.
  • My much missed friend Christopher Hitchens enjoyed collecting 'tumbrel remarks' — an unguarded comment by an uncontrollably rich person, of such crass insensitivity that it makes the populace think of lampposts and guillotines. (His favourite was the Duke of Devonshire announcing after the Times had criticised him that he would never have that paper in 'in any of my houses' again.)

    The Black and White ball was a tumbrel moment. It might have been designed to turn the most moderate and law-abiding citizen into a blood-red revolutionary.

    And then, to cap it all, after a week of private Swiss banks accounts and pheasant shoots, we had Cameron’s response. He would, he announced, clampdown by…Well, by having an investigation into whether drunks, drug addicts and lard buckets should lose their benefits if they don’t accept treatment.

    He's trying it on. He’s taking us for fools. He’s taking a liberty. He’s taking advantage. He’s taking the mickey. He’s taking the pis...

    Right wing writers insist that our anger is phoney. We’re hypocrites, they say. Everyone would fiddle their taxes if they had the chance. They may be judging others by their own low standards, I am sure that’s true for many. The point is we don’t get the chance to hide our money in private banks, and are never going to get it. We resent a government that allows those that do to get away with it. We wonder why we must pay our taxes, while the Tories and HM Revenue & Customs stop rich men and women taking the perp walk.

    I don’t want to turn into one of those clairvoyant pundits who pretends he can see the future. But I suspect after this week it is unlikely that enough of us will put aside our envy and rage, to secure David Cameron’s re-election.