It is clearly hypocritical of David Cameron to condemn as “morally wrong” those who profit from ingenious tax avoidance schemes while himself benefiting from an offshore investment fund set up by his late father. The full extent of his hypocrisy was set out yesterday in splendid commentaries by Dominic Lawson in The Sunday Times (“Join the pitchfork-wavers on tax, Mr Cameron, and you end up skewered”) and Janet Daley in The Sunday Telegraph (“By demonising the super-rich, the Prime Minister set himself up for a fall”).
The fall-out from the leak of the Panama Papers has (so far) been humiliation for Cameron and publication of his personal tax returns (more precisely a summary), the promise of a renewed blitz on aggressive tax avoidance (or should that be illegal tax evasion?) and mounting pressure on other leading politicians, notably the Chancellor George Osborne, to follow suit and declare their riches to an envious and restive nation.
But this imbroglio, the latest in a series of storms to buffet the Prime Minister, has deeper causes than his addiction to political posturing in a vain search for popular support and votes. Lying not so deep in the shrubbery is the Tory press’s contempt for the Prime Minister’s dissimulation over Europe, seen nakedly last week with headlines condemning his decision to spend more than £9 million of taxpayer’s money on a propaganda leaflet to be posted to every house in the land.
Papers such as the Daily Mail and The Sun cannot forgive the Prime Minister for promising fundamental reform of Britain’s relationship with the EU and then settling for piffling so-called concessions from Brussels. Nor does the press have much time for Cameron’s Project Fear and its increasingly ludicrous threats that come Brexit most of the Arsenal squad (and their manager) will be returned to their European countries of birth and cheap flights to Lanzarote will be permanently delayed.
It is also the case that Mr Cameron has a trust problem in more ways than one. He has consciously decided to put himself at the head of the Remain campaign. It can hardly have helped its cause that it took five attempts before the Prime Minister gave a coherent answer to the inevitable questions about whether he profited from the formerly Bahamas-based Blairmore Holdings.
But the real reason for Cameron’s recent serial embarrassments (UK security in the wake of the Brussels bombings, manipulation of the referendum, the almost certain collapse of the steel industry) lies even deeper in the forest. After more than a decade as Tory leader – and six years as Prime Minister – it is patently obvious he stands for very little other than the getting and holding of the highest office in the land. To echo Norman Lamont’s 1993 jibe against John Major’s government, Cameron gives every impression of being in office but not in power.
His government lacks a purpose beyond its own survival. Attempts to give it an agenda (such as the Big Society, the Blairite drive for greater equality and an all-out assault on poverty set out in the 2015 conference speech) have all withered on the vine, forgotten almost as soon as they were uttered. Insofar as the Government has a guiding light it is austerity and the “long-term economic plan” that six years after its birth has markedly failed to balance the books.
Cameron’s Government (but not all his ministers and certainly not all his MPs and party members) is campaigning for the UK to stay in the EU. But even that message is cloaked in the menacing garb of negativity. We hear very little about the wonders Brussels has wrought and a great deal about the plague of locusts that will descend on us if we have the temerity to put two fingers up to the high priests of the European Commission.
So Cameron and his ministers are forced to fall back on government by platitude and fashion. Sensitive to the charge that he is just another “posh bastard”, they strike poses of a pinkish hue, burbling about “modern compassionate conservatism” while embracing leftist causes such as climate change, childcare subsidies, gay marriage and the gender pay gap with all the fervour of a convert.
Now, faced with a fusillade of abuse over tax avoidance, Cameron is about to embark on yet another Corbynista-style crackdown on the rich, which will merely reinforce the growing impression in this country that wealth is truly the property of the State, not the individual, and it is only the generosity of government that allows anyone who is moderately wealthy to keep some of their hard-earned cash. Entrepreneurs and wealth-creators are in for a hard time. Of course, the crackdown will fail abysmally as the seriously rich move their assets around the global chessboard at the click of a button.
Mr Cameron should know that you don’t make the poor richer by making the rich poorer. But the trouble with that approach is that it does risk inflaming the mob, is unlikely to be well received by the BBC and The Guardian, and limits your scope for political posturing and virtue signalling, thereby diminishing your standing in the eyes of the bien pensant classes.
Not that we should be too surprised at the Prime Minister’s conduct. Most Conservative governments (Macmillan, Heath, Major) have been like this one, never turning back the ratchet of the Left and opting for a quiet life gently propelled along by progressive opinion. We should count ourselves lucky that we have had one post-war Tory government that had an ideological centre and acted on its beliefs in market economics, free enterprise and the primacy of the individual and the nation state. Mrs Thatcher, were she still with us today, would not be happy this weekend.