Monday 1 March 2010

Is that what it's all about, then?

So Lord Ashcroft finally admits to being a non-dom for tax paying purposes. Now we have left, right and others slagging each other off about you've got more non-doms than us. For me whether or not he is an non-dom is a non-issue. It's legal. Get over it. It may be that it's undesirable, but it's only just come to seem so in the wake of the whole expenses scandal. Is that what all the fuss was about? Well, not really - I'll come to that in a minute.

The most immediate impact of this saga is on the Conservative Party's competence and reputation. All they needed to do at any stage in this whole process is admit the less than shameful truth that Ashcroft is a non-dom. Instead of doing so they seem to have gone out of their way to make themselves look shifty when questioned about it. Their nadir, I think, was William Hague managing to look spectacularly shifty by repeatedly squirming out of answering Andrew Marr's questions. They have raised for themselves the question: if this is what they're like now, is this what they'll be like in government? Judging from Boris Johnson's repeated, continuing and mounting attempts to avoid any kind of scrutiny so far as mayor of London (see Boriswatch, passim) the answer seems to be yes. So much for transparency and reforming politics. Whenever Cameron talks about that over the next three months there should be a sound track of hollow laughter.

Not only do they look shifty, they look as if they have no idea about political judgement. They have not been able to see that the image of shiftiness they have given themselves was more trouble than the secrecy was worth. Now, negative qualities are not necessarily bad things for politicians to have. Bullygate seems - I emphasise "seems" because we need to see more polling over the next few days - to have done Gordon Brown some good. In 1968 the USA elected Richard Nixon as president not just in spite of but because of his reputation for skullduggery. They wanted a streetfighter to take on the Russians, and they got one. But they did not elect a man who did not know when to fight and when to run away, when to dissemble and when to be honest. The Conservatives are demonstrating, almost daily, that they do not have that judgement, that competence, which is the first requisite of those who would govern us.

But all that stuff about Ashcroft being a non-dom is not what it's about. The real issue is the promise made by the Conservative party when they lobbied for Ashcroft to become a peer. We now have his version of that promise, that he promised by the end of the year to become a resident for tax purposes, and that he clarified that that meant becoming a long term resident, which apparently means that he can still live in Belize (where the heart is, apparently) as long as he spends a few days a year in Britain. Leaving aside the supine stance of the honours office (as far as I'm concerned, if he wanted to be a peer, he should, like the other Conservative foreign funder and recusant Lord Laidlaw, bloody well have become a resident first), that whole thing also leaves the Conservative party looking shifty. They look shifty because they *are* shifty. They could have been open and honest about the promises made right from the start, instead of which they have obfuscated and prevaricated. So much for transparency, Dave.

It's not over yet, of course. We have yet to see the material that is to be made public soon by the Cabinet Office. Then we can judge exactly how shifty the Tories have been.

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