Wednesday 27 March 2019

Nicholas Leonard: 'Omnishambles' Osborne in thick of it with clampdown on charities

Nicholas Leonard

'Omnishambles' is the word they are using in Downing Street these days to describe the series of self-inflicted political disasters that have engulfed the prime minister, David Cameron, and his coalition government.

The word was invented by the scriptwriters of 'The Thick of It', an acidly accurate TV satire about Westminster -- and the award for the most omnishambolic politician of the month has to go to the chancellor, George Osborne.

He is now so unpopular with Conservative MPs that there is even some speculation that he might be pushed out of the Treasury in the cabinet reshuffle which Mr Cameron is expected to carry out this summer.

A mere month ago, such a development would have seemed utterly impossible but the fallout from Mr Osborne's budget has been a public relations nightmare for his party.

Some of the most damaging criticism has come from charities which fear that his clampdown on tax relief for gifts will deprive them of a massive amount of their funding in future. Arts organisations like theatres and opera companies are equally worried. As a result, it now looks as though Mr Cameron will have to execute yet another U-turn and withdraw the controversial proposals.

One of the wealthiest Conservative MPs, Zac Goldsmith, commented yesterday that he felt "ashamed" about them.

It now seems to be only a matter of time before voters are able to find out everything they want to know the financial status of Mr Goldsmith and every other politician in the country. Until now, the tax returns and asset statements of MPs and ministers have been treated as confidential, but that is about to change dramatically.

Mr Cameron said he was "very relaxed" about giving details of his tax affairs but he tends to use the word 'relaxed' to mean 'trying to think of a way out of this' and it is not yet clear just how much real transparency there will be. His deputy, Nick Clegg, for instance, may well refuse to publish the tax returns of his wife, who is a highly successful lawyer and has a considerably larger income than he does.

Many MPs are extremely unrelaxed about the idea of telling voters just how much they earn and how much they own. They were badly shaken by the furore over their expenses and many of them fear another such debacle could be looming.

Conservative MPs have already been embarrassed by the revelations over the cavalier way in which their treasurer, Peter Cruddas, was willing to trade donations for access to Downing Street until he was exposed in a newspaper sting operation and forced to resign.

There is, of course, intense international pressure from organisations like the UN to force politicians to reveal their finances as a way of fighting corruption. In some Scandinavian countries, the tax affairs of every single inhabitant are routinely made available to everyone, while in the US both President Barack Obama and his Republican rival, Mitt Romney, have faced criticism over the low levels of tax they have been paying.

The shift towards transparency at Westminster follows a damaging battle between the two candidates to be mayor of London -- the Conservative, Boris Johnson, who has held the post for the past four years, and his maverick Labour predecessor, Ken Livingstone, who was in charge for the previous eight years.

To the surprise and dismay of his supporters, Livingstone emerged the clear loser from the row over who paid what tax and he has also suffered from some crass comments about rich Jews and some equally awkward schmoozing of the important Muslim community in London.

Everything suggests that Johnson will score a major victory against Livingstone next month, defying the downward national trend for the Conservatives as a whole. He is the hot favourite with the bookmakers and if he does emerge the winner his chances of eventually leading the Conservative party will be greatly enhanced.

The problems faced by the party will be highlighted next month by the results of the local council elections which are expected to show a recovery for Labour.

That will be a relief for its leader, Ed Miliband, who has been struggling to demonstrate his ability to capitalise on the woes of the coalition.

Irish Independent

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