Going down through history, one wouldn’t doubt that being Prime Minister of the United Kingdom must be one of the most frustrating jobs in world politics. You fight your way to the top of the greasy pole – and then the greasy electoral poll; you receive the keys to Number 10 Downing Street; you appoint your government ministers. All should be good.
And then stuff happens …
After which you spend the rest of your premiership fire-fighting.
In recent days fellow Rust columnist Bryn Thomas has been commenting upon David Cameron’s travails over his connections with tax haven investments as revealed in the passing wash of the Panama Papers revelations of this week’s BBC Panorama programme, but primarily from the public relations angle.
The purpose of my post today is to comment (in the round) upon the political ramifications thereof.
If you regard the acquiring – and then retention – of credibility as possibly one of every British politician’s biggest issues [not least given the distrust and cynicism that the electorate has for the political class] then you’d forgive them for treating any incoming accusations or proof of personal rank hypocrisy, inconsistency, shiftiness, being ‘economical with the truth’ and/or straightforward dishonesty as potentially cruel (or even poisonous) barbed harpoons fired by a 19th Century whaler.
The Prime Minister’s current ‘little local difficulty’ with exactly how much he and his family may have personally benefited from the proceeds (taxed or not) of tax haven entities are naturally related to the facts that, firstly, next month he is due to chair a world conference on promoting transparency and putting tax havens under pressure to ‘come clean’ over the political leaders, oligarchs – possibly even career criminals, drug runners, money launderers and others – who habitually squirrel some or all of their wealth away from the prying eyes of national tax-gatherers around the globe.
And secondly, that since becoming Premier in 2010, he has many times made public speeches and comments to the effect that the governments he has headed – Coalition and then, from 2015, Tory – are to be commended for instigating a new crusade against those who [let’s use a ‘catch-all phrase for shorthand purposes] indulge in ‘aggressive tax avoidance’, e.g. by investing in what are regarded as dodgy ‘film financing’ schemes by which monies which might otherwise have been taxed are ‘shielded’ by ‘losses’ incurred on movies in which investments have been made, and/or setting up off-shore companies in one of the many ‘tax haven’ territories that exist around the world.
Clearly – in such a context – for Mr Cameron himself then to be revealed as someone who, in however minimal a form, has himself held one or more investments in a tax haven company is a problem.
That’s all I’m saying.
The fact is, this story is going to run and run and has effectively overshadowed (possibly only temporarily) the Prime Minister’s planned launch of his EU Referendum ‘Remain’ campaign this week.
Here’s an example of a fairly-typical ‘comment’ piece in the UK national press, written by Marina Hyde, as appears on the website today of – THE GUARDIAN
Separately, my other point today springs from observing the process by which the ‘Cameron tax haven problem’ is being played out in the media day-by-day.
One can take it as read that Labour, the Scots Nats and the Liberal-Democrats [what we can broadly term ‘the Opposition’] were always going to make as much political capital out of the Prime Minister’s situation and embarrassment as they could.
Since the General Election of May 2015 – largely through their own complicated issues and incompetence – they have singularly failed to get a ball of any significance into the back of the metaphorical net, despite the Tories giving away numerous penalties and then having their goalkeeper of the moment ‘walk away from his post’, leaving to all intents and purposes an open goal.
I’m rather more intrigued, however, by the ongoing process of Number 10’s public relations team attempting to kill and/or dampen down the ‘Cameron Tax Haven’ problem. It isn’t going very well at the moment.
Said gent comes from a marketing/communications background and, having been vice-chairman of the 1922 Committee, has most recently held a variety of other Commons responsibilities, including as a member of the Speaker’s Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Committee.
Presumably when reviewing prospective candidates to go out into the world and defend Mr Cameron, Mr Walker was one who scored highly on (1) ability to think quickly on his feet and/or bluster to apparent good effect, and (2) loyal willingness to do so on this occasion and subject.
This week I have witnessed him making an appearance in the cause on an edition of the 7.00pm Channel Four News (being quizzed by Jon Snow) and yesterday sparring with Kay Burley on her afternoon Sky News show.
As befits someone with his training and background Mr Walker is undoubtedly skilled in burbling ‘plausible-sounding verbiage’ to order, a flow aimed at parrying any awkward question or point being put to him and thereby (hopefully presumably) filling up the time allotted for his interview without making any obvious cock-ups or admissions.
The trouble for cynical onlookers or listeners such as myself is that his manner and transparent intent (see above) tends to irritate from the moment he opens his mouth.
Plainly the hard-wire part of his brain had been programmed with four basic points to keep hammering home:
Firstly, any individual’s tax affairs are essentially a private matter;
Secondly, the muck-flinging at the Prime Minister (from wherever it is coming and upon whatever basis) is no more than an unworthy, cowardly and wholly inappropriate attempt to malign the reputation of a man – David Cameron’s father – who is dead and therefore unable to defend himself; furthermore, it is certainly nothing whatsoever to do with the Prime Minister;
Thirdly – this if a question or suggestion was put that Mr Cameron might have an issue of conflict of interest and/or hypocrisy when he’d been leading a public crusade against tax havens (and potential tax-avoidance by those using them) whilst knowing that he had in the past used them himself but trying to keep it secret – Mr Cameron had no such problem because he’d paid tax on his tax haven gains … and anyway (see above) it was entirely a private matter and no concern whatsoever of the electorate’s.
And fourthly, any suggestion that the ‘drip, drip, drip’ developments in the way that Number 10 and Mr Cameron have dealt with the crisis this week should be criticised – still less on the basis that it might have been better for Mr Cameron to come clean right at the start rather than create a rod for his own back by acting like King Canute and trying first to deny there was a problem … and then, step by step, having to make further and further admissions as every day went by … was well wide of the mark.
Incongruously, when it was put to Mr Walker that his argument was not logical – i.e. if he was seriously maintaining that Mr Cameron’s tax affairs were strictly a ‘private matter’ (as he clearly was) then presumably he must regard the Number 10 ‘crisis management’ operation of the past week [i.e. gradually issuing more and more admissions and/or ‘clarifications’ of Mr Cameron’s tax position] as ill-advised mistaken and wholly unnecessary – he denied it point blank and went on to imply that the Prime Minister’s degree of integrity would put that of Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa and indeed Jesus Christ himself to shame.
In short, from my perspective, Mr Walker’s sallies forth this week have done little to help the Prime Minister – contrary to that which was (presumably) intended.
As a fairly typical example of Mr Walker in action, here is a short clip from his curt exchanges with Kay Burley on Sky News yesterday. He had brushed away Burley’s suggestion that it might be best now if the Prime Minister published his historic tax returns by using his ‘it’s a private matter’ defence. Then, when she raised the ‘if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear’ line, he said that in principle going down that route was a danger to civil liberties.
See here – and apologies for any advertisement and or ‘clicking’ readers may have to do to reach the clip – SKY NEWS