William, it was Really Nothing

Sometimes song titles just hand themselves to you on a plate….

Obviously more than a little degree of schadenfreude at Westminster today, and I’m not talking about the Labour ranks. More than a few Tories – including those who loathe the Cameroons to the point they’re quite prepared to lose the next election if it means seeing the back of him, and those Tory traditionalists who feel he’s hung them out to dry over expenses – are finding it hard to hide their glee as the Ashcroft chickens finally come home to roost.

The does he/ doesn’t he, should he/ shouldn’t he pay tax issue has been done to death elsewhere, so let me just put a few things on the record.

1). I believe that all UK legislators should be resident in the UK and pay full taxes here. No non-doms.

2) I support, and have voted for, a wholly-elected House of Lords, not one appointed by patronage.

3) The difference between Ashcroft and other non-dom donors is that his peerage was conditional on him becoming a UK taxpayer, and based on undertakings he gave after he’d been turned down for a peerage twice. And his sheer effrontery in trying to brazen it out.

4) It is absolutely ridiculous that the Tory leadership could have got away with, until now, simply shrugging their shoulder whenever they were asked what Ashcroft’s tax status was. Obviously Cameron, within days of becoming leader of a party bankrolled by the ignoble Lord, should have asked him. Ditto Hague.

5) It’s time to deploy that well-worn phrase: the Tories simply don’t get it. They think all this sort of stuff – and the Guardian, for example, is now carrying claims that Ashcroft avoided a pretty hefty VAT bill by invoicing opinion polling to Belize – is perfectly legit. Paying taxes is what the little people do.

What I’m most curious about, however – and what I think other people ought to be more curious about than they have been to date – is just what the deal is between Hague and Ashcroft. OK, Ashcroft bankrolled the party in its darkest days, when Hague was leader. And Hague is grateful to him for that.

But it’s what happened after Hague stepped down as leader that is really intriguing. Ashcroft began funding Hague’s parliamentary office, and then, to quote the Guardian: “Soon after, Hague was being flown across the world in Ashcroft’s jet… He went to Prague in March 2006… followed by trips to Sudan, Israel, Jordan, China, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Bahrain and Syria, all courtesy of Ashcroft.” The question is simple: why?

The Guardian piece goes on to say “Their relationship appears to have grown closer – and Ashcroft’s support more generous – after David Cameron appointed Hague shadow foreign secretary in December 2005. The businessman began accompanying the politician on official shadow foreign secretary visits prompting speculation that Ashcroft was being considered for a ministerial role in the Foreign Office in a future Tory government.” Trips to Iceland, Belize, Brazil, the Falklands, Cairo, Cuba, and official meetings with Obama’s advisers in Washington….

Now I can see why a shadow foreign affairs spokesperson would go on lots of overseas trips. I can see why he’d take with him the guy who was so generously funding them. I can see that Ashcroft might have fancied a role in a Tory government, and given his past generosity, it was an offer the Tories couldn’t refuse to make.

What’s most intriguing is the period before Hague was given the foreign affairs brief, when he was supposedly taking it easy on the backbenches, spending time with his business interests. What were they up to, flying round the world? What were those meetings about? I genuinely don’t know. But I’d certainly like to.

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