Thursday, 4 March 2010

"Due diligence" and the Tories

That the Electoral Commission - despite a disgraceful boycott of their requests to interview senior Tories - has ruled that Lord Ashcroft's Bearwood company is entitled to pour money into buying the election in marginal constituencies does not absolve the party from the questions that arise after William Hague's astonishing admission on BBC Radio last night.

Hague effectively admitted that Lord Ashcroft had misled him - to put it politely - about his tax status. As Lord Turnbull, the former Cabinet Secretary, has indicated, ignorance is no defence when Hague had given clear undertakings as a condition of Ashcroft's peerage. The Electoral Commission maintains - despite their boycott of its interviewers - that the Tories had in all probability done their 'due diligence' over the Bearwood donations. Yet since Lord Turnbull is quite clear that Hague had not done his 'due diligence' with respect to Ashcroft's supposed willingness to pay his taxes as a UK resident, it is hard to see on what basis the Electoral Commission has decided to give his party colleagues the benefit of the doubt.

The facts appear to be these. Lord Ashcroft led Hague to believe that he would pay "tens of millions of pounds a year" in taxes if he entered the House of Lords. Ashcroft intended to do no such thing, preferring the congenial Belizean tax regime, and throwing a few quid to the Revenue as a non-dom instead. James Arbuthnot, a Tory chief whip, reached some side deal with Sir Hayden Philips, according to the Cabinet Office, that allowed Ashcroft to be declared a 'long-term' rather than 'permanent' resident, allowing his congenial Belizean tax regime to continue for most of Ashcroft's income. He presumably didn't feel it necessary to tell William Hague. As a result, Hague misled both Tony Blair and the Cabinet Secretary. And until a few months ago, neither Hague nor presumably David Cameron could be arsed to check what had gone one.

Of course, Ashcroft should be required to relinquish his role in the Tory party and his peerage. But isn't there also a big question over the judgment and competence of William Hague, and his ability to be Foreign Secretary if the Tories win the election, when he may be required to agree treaties and other matters with other countries? Presumably he won't be too bothered to check up on whether they keep their promises.

And I do so look forward to hearing David Cameron pontificating about cleaning up politics again.

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