What the Panama papers really reveal about David Cameron

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Part of the art of politics is crisis management: making shame and other negative stories go away. But over the past week, David Cameron – whose antennae often look as sharp as the best of them – has somehow managed to do the opposite. He has turned a pedestrian story about his personal finances into an ongoing scandal.

How come? The Panama Papers revealed that the late prime minister’s father, John, had something called a “unit trust” fund, where a group of people would pool their money (by buying shares, or units, of the whole pot ) and use it to invest. in different securities, spreading the risk. Apparently he was motivated by administrative convenience rather than tax avoidance: the Camerons paid British taxes on their income. Millions of Britons use similar arrangements, albeit indirectly, through pension funds that invest in hedge funds susceptible to such practices. Nothing has emerged to indicate that the prime minister’s family broke any rules.

But concerned about his family’s privacy and wanting to keep his father from appearing in the Panama broadcast with crooks and drug lords, Mr Cameron let the story run away from his control by demanding that it be handled as a private matter. So Downing Street stonewalled journalists. And this created the impression that he had something to hide, fueling speculation and delaying for several days his – perhaps inevitable – complaint that he was involved in the “Blairmore” fund and that he sold just before he became prime minister. The delay triggered a cycle: each revelation produced new eagles of outrage (some apparently motivated more by his great wealth than by specific details of his financial arrangements ) and smart new questions about his family’s finances.

That became abundantly clear today when, when he released his tax returns from 2009 to 2015 in a last-ditch effort to get ahead of the story, the Prime Minister revealed that his mother had given him a gift of He was given £200,000 after his father’s death in 2010, to balance out the estate among his four children. This was an effective tax move. As Jolyon Maugham, a tax advocate, said that the amounts and that threshold are so great that if John Cameron left a “fair” legacy directly to his children, the family would have to pay inheritance tax. This practice, like the unit trust deposit, is unmarked and does not involve breaking the rules. In other words the Camerons responded normally to the signals sent by the tax system. Anyone who thinks the result is unfair – and it’s perfectly valid to argue that it would have merit in shifting the tax burden away from income and towards wealth and inheritance – actually the beef is with the system rather than with Mary Cameron and her late husband.

But in the political sphere, such nuances count for very little. As David Cameron begins Parliament’s first week after the Easter recess – he will appear before MPs tomorrow to outline how the government will investigate the Panama Papers revelations – he is facing calls for more disclosures and questions about his income and assets before he becomes prime minister. . Jeremy Corbyn, the Labor leader, has asked cabinet ministers to publish their tax returns. George Osborne is under particular pressure. In Scotland, where the parliamentary election campaign is coming to an end, senior politicians are particularly falling over themselves to publish their tax returns.

Quite where this publicity bidding war ends up depends on how the news cycle develops this week. The story should go over in the end, especially if the prime minister’s opponents don’t behave badly in the end, as it seems. But perhaps it marks the beginning of a new climate where it is considered that the electorate has the right to know the dough of their legislators. Whether that is positive (cleansing up politics and empowering voters) or negative (introducing a pessimistic view of doing wrong and thus putting off prospective politicians).

Nevertheless, events so far have been a reminder of two things. The first is that anti-establishment sentiment, among those who are politically active at least (indeed, terror), is running high. At other times, Mr. Cameron’s reaction to the story about his father may have been the final straw. But today it has been pushed forward by the prime minister’s rivals on the left, in the Labor Party, and on the right, on the Eurosceptic wing of the Tory Party, who have continued loyalty to the prime minister for this year’s election. last year has been frustrated by his campaign for the EU over the past few weeks.

The second is that for all his political skills Mr Cameron has serious weaknesses. In the months after last year’s election the prime minister’s stock rose higher than the truth would have been. He is a talented prime minister, he is (until proven otherwise) a decent man and combines a sense of rationality and credibility with smooth and efficient operation more than any British politician since Tony Blair. But combined with the drama over cuts to disability benefits last month and the mishandling of the steel crisis in recent weeks, Downing Street’s response to the Panama papers proved slow, unimaginative and chippy – an important fact. Mr Cameron is much more than the smart boy of his critics, but he suffers from blind spots, lapses of judgment and confirmation bias all the same. This is not the first time he has lost control of a news story, or allowed personal loyalties to cloud what should have been rational political decisions. He is not nearly as bad a politician as many of his critics claim. But he is not at all a political leader as blameless as his followers boast.

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