Lord Ashcroft – the three things which strike me

by Stephen Tall on March 3, 2010

For the third day, the revelation that Lord Ashcroft has dodged paying full UK taxes for a decade with the complicit knowledge of the Tory leadership has been dominating the serious news media. And congratulations are due here to Chris Huhne and his research team for unearthing the estimate that the Tory deputy chairman has saved himself £127m in tax by maintaining his non-dom status despite promising to live in the UK as an ordinary resident.

It’s not been a pretty couple of days for the Tories. Here are three points which have struck me:

1. What does this episode say about Ashcroft’s power?

My LDV co-editor Mark Pack tweeted immediately after the story broke on Monday, “Main thought on #Ashcroft: shows how weak Tory press operation is at times. They tried to kill story in Dec and failed”. He may be right.

An alternative reading is this: how frustrated must the Tory press operation be? The timing for the party could scarcely have been worse. Over the last few weeks, the Tories have been seriously shaken by opinion polls showing a shrinking lead over Labour; David Cameron’s adequate speech to the party’s spring forum in Brighton at the weekend provided them with an opportunity to show they had bottomed out, and can bounce back. Then came Ashcroft’s revelation, and the party back on the ropes again.

What this suggests to me is that Ashcroft, not the Tory leadership, writes the rules. It seems incredible that the timing of his announcement was the one the leadership, let alone their press team, could have wanted. He who pays the piper calls the tune: and the Tory leadership has danced to Lord Ashcroft’s tune for a decade now.

2. What does this episode say about the Tories’ fitness for power?

But even allowing for my view that the Tory leadership is so indebted to Lord Ashcroft that they now feel unable to assert any real authority, what has struck me about the wider Tory response is quite how defensive and resentful is their bluster.

The Tory defence seems to be two-fold. First, that Lord Ashcroft is a modest donor these days, and almost peripheral to the Tories’ campaign strategy. This is of course nonsense, as this Times article makes clear:

Today Lord Ashcroft’s reach is huge. Despite insisting that George Osborne is running the campaign, it is the peer’s team who control polling and strategy in marginal seats.

And, secondly, that whatever you might say about Lord Ashcroft, Labour also has its share of non-dom peers. But saying ‘The other lot are just as bad’ is a rather futile point to make when you’re two months away from an election at which you have to make the case for why you’d be so much better in government.

The over-riding impression I get from this Ashcroft episode (and I’ve talked to a handful of senior Tories about it) is bafflement that it’s an issue at all. Most Tories seem to see nothing wrong in Lord Ashcroft minimising his tax bill through whatever legal means available, and nothing wrong with him occupying a seat in the House of Lords while doing so. The idea of fairness – that those who legislate how much the rest of us should get taxed, and how that money should be spent, should pay the same tax as the rest of us – is seen as the pedantry of liberal-leftys.

If there’s one thing bound to unite Lib Dem, Labour and floating voters, it’s irritation with the sense of entitlement too many Tories exude, and which Lord Ashcroft’s tax affairs exemplify.

3. What can we do about it?

It’s all very well complaining about Lord Ashcroft on blogs, or tweeting disparagingly – but is there anything that any of us can actually do about it? Well, yes – two things …

First, The Guardian suggests a practical way in which folk can try and find out from the Tories what the Tories are keeping schtum about:

What we would like is if you could put our questions, below, to your local Tory MP or candidate and let us know what responses you get, or if they too get ignored.

Please email what you find to with “Ashcroft questions” (or similar) in the subject field. You can find your Tory MP or candidate and their contact details on the Conservative’s website.

And here are the questions:

1. In 1999 William Hague wrote to Tony Blair assuring him that Lord Ashcroft would change his tax status by the following financial year with the effect that he would pay “tens of millions a year in tax”. Did Lord Ashcroft indeed pay tens of millions a year in UK tax since becoming a peer?

2. How is Lord Ashcroft’s non-dom status consistent with his “solemn and binding” undertaking to become a permanent UK resident?

3. When did William Hague become aware that Lord Ashcroft was not domiciled in the UK for tax purposes?

4. When did David Cameron become aware that Lord Ashcroft was not domiciled in the UK for tax purposes?

5. Do you believe Lord Ashcroft misled William Hague when he promised to become a permanent resident as a condition for receiving a peerage?

And secondly, the Lib Dems need your donations to enable the party to compete in key battleground seats against Lord Ashcroft’s largesse.

Lib Dem Voice is running our election appeal, focusing on five candidates in marginal seats, here. Alternatively, you can donate generally to the national party here – you can even specify that your donation support a candidate in an Ashcroft-funded seat: I’m sure the party will oblige.

Either way, please consider doing what you can today to help the Lib Dems fight the next election on a level playing field.