What the Panama papers really reveal about David Cameron

What the Panama papers really reveal about David Cameron


PART of the art of politics is crisis management: making embarrassments and other disadvantageous stories go away. But over the past week, David Cameron—whose antennae often seem 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 a rolling scandal.

How? The Panama papers leak revealed that the prime minister’s late father, Ian, had something called a “unit trust” fund, whereby a group of people pool their money (by buying shares, or units, of the total kitty) and use it to invest in a variety of securities, spreading the risk. Its incorporation offshore, initially in Panama, was seemingly motivated by administrative convenience rather than tax-dodging: the Camerons paid British taxes on their income from it. Millions of Britons use similar arrangements, albeit indirectly, through pension funds which invest in hedge funds prone to such practices. Nothing that has emerged suggests that the prime minister’s family broke any rules.

But concerned for his family’s privacy and anxious to keep his father from appearing in the Panama coverage alongside crooks and drug lords, Mr Cameron let the story run away from his control by insisting that it should be treated as a private matter. So Downing Street stonewalled journalists. And this created the impression that he had something to hide, fuelling speculation and delaying by several days his—probably inevitable—concession that he had held a stake in the “Blairmore” fund and had sold it just before becoming prime minister. The delay triggered a cycle: each disclosure begetting new yowls of outrage (some seemingly prompted more by the fact of his very considerable wealth than by any particular detail of his financial arrangements) and new prurient questions about his family’s money.

That much became clear today when, publishing his tax returns from 2009 to 2015 in a bid finally to get ahead of the story, the prime minister made it known that his mother had made him a gift of £200,000 after his father’s death in 2010, to balance out the latter’s estate among his four children. This was a tax-efficient move. As Jolyon Maugham, a tax barrister, has noted, the sums and the threshold in question are such that had Ian Cameron bequeathed a “balanced” inheritance directly to his children, the family would have had to pay a heap of inheritance tax. This practice, like the unit-trust investment, is unremarkable and involves no rule-breaking. In other words the Camerons responded normally to the signals sent by the tax system. Anyone who reckons the result is unjust—and it is perfectly valid to argue that it would be meritocratic to shift the tax burden away from income and towards wealth and inheritance—really has beef with the system rather than with Mary Cameron and her late husband.

Yet in the political arena, such nuances count for little. As David Cameron begins Parliament’s first week in session after the Easter recess—he appears before MPs tomorrow to set out how the government will investigate the Panama papers revelations—he faces demands for further disclosures and questions about his income and assets prior to becoming prime minister. Jeremy Corbyn, Labour’s leader, has called on all cabinet ministers to publish their tax statements. George Osborne is under particular pressure. In Scotland, where the parliamentary election campaign is approaching its culmination, senior politicians are pointedly falling over themselves to publish their tax returns.

Quite where this transparency bidding war ends up depends on how the news cycle develops this week. The story should eventually blow over, especially if the prime minister’s opponents ultimately have no misdemeanour to pin on him, as seems to be the case. But it may mark the beginning of a newly intrusive climate in which the electorate is deemed to have a right to know all about its legislators’ dough. A debate remains to be had about whether that is positive (cleaning up politics and giving voters more power) or negative (enshrining a cynical presumption of wrong-doing and thus putting off prospective politicians).

Nonetheless, events to date have already served as a reminder of two things. The first is that anti-establishment feeling, among the politically active at least (admittedly a huge caveat), is running high. In other times, Mr Cameron’s reticent reaction to the story about his father might have been the end of the matter. Yet today it was pounced on by the prime minister’s rivals on both the left, in the Labour Party, and the right, on the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party, whose residual loyalty to the prime minister for winning last year’s election has been drained by his pro-EU campaigning over the past weeks.

The second is that for all his political skills, Mr Cameron has real weaknesses. In the months after last year’s election the prime minister’s stock rose higher than the reality would bear. He is a very talented premier, is (until proven otherwise) a decent man and combines a sense of reasonableness and credibility with a smoothly efficient operation more than any British politician since Tony Blair. Yet along with the drama over cuts to disability benefits last month and the mishandling of the steel crisis in recent weeks, Downing Street’s reaction to the Panama papers—slow, unimaginative and chippy—illustrated an important truth. Mr Cameron is much more than the pampered posh boy of his critics’ imagination, but he suffers from blind spots, slips of judgment and confirmation bias all the same. This is by no means the first time that he has lost control of a news story, or allowed personal loyalties to cloud what should be rational political decisions. He is not remotely as bad a politician as many of his critics claim. But nor is he as flawless a political leader as his admirers boast.

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