So, after the past seven days being “not a great week” for David Cameron, the Prime Minister must have had slightly sweaty palms before entering the House of Commons this afternoon to issue a statement on the Panama Papers revelations, his own tax affairs and (in an unprecedented move) accept questions from the House on his financial arrangements.
With certain quarters of the press having a feeding-frenzy over revelations about a £300,000 inheritance from his Father, a £200,000 gift from his Mother and the possible £75-80k he may profit from owing to these arrangements (with the “money-shot” being that the funds were garnered via offshore accounting), the PM was no doubt under some pressure today to put this issue to bed.
But, as the slicker-than-a-Exxon-spill snake oil salesman today showed, you can have a “omnishambles” of a week and still present yourself as a victim.
Using the “deeply upsetting and profoundly untrue” statements made about his late Father as cynical leverage (Ralph Miliband?), Cameron took us through a rollcall of exactly how Blairmore holdings had complied with international law, how he had declared everything he is obliged to as a minister, and even managed to get a dig in at the Guardian, Mirror Group and Jeremy Corbyn’s Islington Council at the same time – by saying that all three use similar investment funds as those set up by his Father.
Cameron claimed that Blairmore Holdings was, allegedly, “set up overseas in the first place because it was trading in dollar securities… it made sense”. Of course. Nothing to do with reducing people’s tax bill. Silly me.
Furthermore, he stated that “Unit Trusts” were an entirely “standard practice”, and that they “encourage investment” and promote “wealth creation and aspiration” in this country. I’m sure the real “wealth creators” who have just had their jobs saved at Tata Steel in Scunthorpe are relieved that people with more money than sense can get even richer by stashing shares offshore in the name of “aspiration” – while the former have spent months merely aspiring to keep a roof over their heads.
Announcing three new policy measures, including making Crown Dependencies give full access to ownership of companies to UK law enforcement and £10m for a cross-agency task force on the Panama Papers, the Prime Minister couldn’t help but tie this all together nicely with his usual bow of a “Strong Economy”, claiming “£28bn” will have been recouped by this and the previous Governments in avoided and evaded tax (I, for one, would like a source for that figure).
Corbyn seemed genuinely rattled by the whole Panama Papers debacle, claiming the PM’s statement was a “masterclass in distraction”, and citing that the “UK (was) at the heart of the global tax avoidance industry”.
Asking 6 questions of the PM, including whether he would stop blocking the EU’s attempts at blacklisting tax havens (a question Cameron failed to answer), he also noted the tardy record of HMRC on prosecutions since 2010, which still only amount to eleven (after 14,000 staff have been cut, naturally).
“The Prime Minister’s record shows the public have no trust in him”; “six years of crushing austerity”, and “one rule for the super-rich, and one for the rest” were all hard-hitting statements from Corbyn, which would resonate, I imagine, with the majority of the public. But they oddly failed to resonate on the Government benches, with the utterly vile and contemptible Alan Duncan accusing anyone who objects to a wholly unfair tax system as being “jealous” and “low-achievers”.
Dennis Skinner today went further, twice calling Cameron “Dodgy Dave”, which resulted in him being asked to leave the Chamber, and Margaret Hodge probed the Prime Minister on the detail of the Crown Dependencies beneficial register’s proposals – which threw up the pertinent fact that these lists are not going to be made public.
But the general thrust of the debate from the Government was summed up nicely when the Chair of the Treasury Select Committee, Andrew Tyrie, tried to sneak out of the Chamber (probably to the Strangers Bar) and had to be called back by Bercow – to cacophonous guffawing by the Tory benches.
This encapsulated what we witnessed the “heart” of our democracy, today – a Government which thinks this whole issue is decidedly amusing, not worthy of much attention and an hour spent on a debate which will literally change nothing.
Unit trusts? Inheritance tax? Task forces? “Aspiration”? All dead cats being batted around the Chamber like a game of swing-ball on a Panamanian beach.
Both leaders seemed pressurised, tired and tongue-tied today, but with Corbyn coming off far more favourably, showing a palpable anger over this whole debacle and a narrative which represented the public’s general concerns.
But we saw a debate centred around the what the Government and its corporatist bedfellows would have us believe – that was an issue about the Prime Minister, which has now been resolved, and the Conservatives are taking steps to ensure they clampdown on offshore tax avoidance and evasion
Firstly, this should not be about the Prime Minister as an “individual”.
This should be about the Prime Minister as an “Elected Politician”, a “Lawmaker” and a “Leader” – all roles which he seemed to hold in very little regard when he lobbied in 2013 for the EU to weaken regulations on tackling offshore tax abuse.
The issue should neither be about whether the public have “lost trust” in Cameron (as The Independent screamed that Tory MP’s were chattering about, this morning) – it’s needs to be about the lack of trust in a system (involving politicians and corporations) which possibly allows a Prime Minister to let vested interests directly influence his decision making.
Secondly, this should not be about the UK and other OECD countries.
This should be about a global problem in a global financial system, weighted towards the benefit of the few, and away from the many, that is intrinsically broken and should be subject to serious examination and debate – debate that should involve all of us.
But naturally, we are seeing the narrative being intentionally steered towards personalities, and away from the system itself – a dangerous route which will lead to very little actually being done about this issue, and therefore allowing change to become a distant memory.
Did todays admissions and reconciliations from the Prime Minister tell us anything we didn’t already know or suspect?
Will today’s additional announcements make any difference to a global problem that infects every part of society, across the planet – and stems so much of the time from the UK?
Today’s “debate” was an absolute write-off, a waste of an hour in the House of Commons and a session which has done nothing to address the fundamental problem – offshore accounting is deeply rooted in our financial system, and half-baked measures hurriedly conceived will do absolutely nothing about that.
The only people who emerged unscathed from this baloney were Jeremy Corbyn and Dennis Skinner – for saying what so many of us are thinking.
Don’t watch it on catch up.
Unless you have an hour of your life to squander.