It probably seemed like a great idea to David Cameron when he criticised Jimmy Carr’s tax affairs during a round of TV interview in Mexico. His comments – attacking the immorality of avoidance – chime with the public mood. People don’t like to find out that others aren’t paying as much tax at a time of austerity, unemployment, spending cuts and so on.
But the Cameron stance quickly unravelled within minutes of him uttering the words on Wednesday afternoon. First question was why the prime minister criticised a single comedian and not those closer to home (Sir Philip Green, Lord Ashcroft, etc) whose tax affairs have been questioned in the past.
Second question was why the PM attacked Carr but not Gary Barlow, the cuddly Take That singer who supported the Tories before the last election. Asked about Barlow on Wednesday, he said something vague about having not reached his computer yet. By today, it was a matter of no comment.
During a press conference today Cameron sought to shift into reverse gear, saying it was everybody’s right to arrange their tax affairs efficiently and that he wouldn’t provide a “running commentary” on individuals’ tax. Yet the genie is already out of the bottle. The spotlight will now be on members of Cameron’s family, his friends, his donors and his MPs; who else has been a little too efficient in
Alan Johnson has seemed assured and capable since taking the job of shadow chancellor – despite joking that he would need to read an economics primer to get up to speed. (In fact none of the last four chancellors have had proper economics backgrounds).
But his maiden voyage this morning was not the most awe-inspiring of occasions, taking place at the KPMG offices just off Fleet Street. There were only 20 or 30 people in the audience, all of which seemed to be either journalists or accountants from the host company.
It was worth listening to Today this morning if only to hear Lord Ashdown under siege over the issue of Sir Philip Green and his tax status. The Lib Dem peer was asked about how the government could seriously talk about battling tax avoidance given the recent hiring of the retail tycoon as an efficiency czar: As the interviewer asked:
“If this government was really serious about tax avoidance it would not have employed, would it, Sir Philip Green, who is also accused of avoiding taxes, perfectly legally…but there he is, advising the government on waste. If the Lib Dems really had power in this government he wouldn’t be there would he?”
Ashdown said he would not criticise the appointment. He then rattled off a list of the many changes achieved by the coalition (pupil premium, tax breaks for low-income families, etc). It was as if he didn’t want to discuss the tycoon at all.
But the Lib Dems do seem to be facing both ways on the issue of tax at the moment. Yesterday Danny Alexander announced a new £900m to spend on tackling the issue. But how does this square with hiring Sir Philip?
It turns out that Sir Philip, the government’s new efficiency czar, didn’t like the Today programme asking him uncomfortable questions last week. The retail tycoon was asked, among other things, about the tax status of his wife – who owns Arcadia. (She is resident in Monaco).
In an opinion piece for the Mail on Sunday today Sir Philip explains a little more about how he can advise Whitehall in the coming months. There’s also a little thinly-disguised threat against the BBC: