Several months ago I wrote a series of articles about the dangers that Michael Ashcroft posed to the Conservative Party. I was not alone. The problem of a man who did not pay taxes in the UK nevertheless being nominated to be a member of the British Parliament as a result of his being a major financial supporter of the Conservative Party has always been a spit in the eye of British democracy.
That the Conservatives now claim not to have known until very recently that Mr. Ashcroft has retained his non-dom tax status stretches all credulity. William Hague is either a fool or a liar. He should have known what Mr. Ashcroft's status was or was going to be as a pre-condition to his being granted a peerage. That a peerage had previously been refused simply underlines that care that the Tories should have taken on this issue.
So what does it matter? Surely this is just another storm in a Westminster teacup?
In fact the Conservative embrace of Michael Ashcroft demonstrates why there has been such a failure of trust in British politics. The cut corners and sloppiness that the affair demonstrates not much more than naked greed. The Conservatives will try to throw enough mud at the other parties: Lord Paul, Michael Brown and so on, but the fact is that Michael Ashcroft is different.
Lord Paul has not hidden his tax status, And for all the embarrassment that Brown caused the
Liberal Democrats, repeated investigation has found the party did not act improperly. Yet, if we are to believe William Hague or David Cameron, Michael Ashcroft appears to have mislead the Tories and to have avoided tax of millions of Pounds, despite being a member of the tax raising body of the United Kingdom.
This comes at a time when the British Constitution is at a breaking point. The political class that purports to rule us is more isolated from the rest of society than ever. An entire political clique has no other work experience except the foetid committee rooms of party or Parliament. With no executive experience, they are too incompetent to even be aware of their limitations, or understand the mechanics of leadership. It may well be that Cameron and Osborne, Brown or Darling are full of sincerity about their motives; yet as we are already seeing, they lack the most basic executive skills, vision or understanding to be able to deliver. For that reason, the relatively minor parliamentary expenses scandal has become a major crisis of trust. The British people may tolerate uselessness, but they will not tolerate petty and venal greed.
This is where the Ashcroft affair demonstrates the very worst side of the Conservative Party. For several years, the Tory leadership was warned of the problems that Michael Ashcroft's tax status represented. They chose to avoid the issue, to ignore it and hope it would go away. However the British people has been particularly annoyed by the outrageous expenses claims from hugely wealthy Conservative MPs: the moat cleaning and the duck houses were an overwhelmingly Tory phenomenon. For the Tory leadership, after being pressured for so long on Ashcroft's tax affairs, to deny all knowledge is a scandal. Either they knew and they are lying, or they genuinely did not know, in which case they should have done and are not fit for office.
The British people yearns to trust its leaders, but as the narrowing gap in the opinion polls shows, their faith in the ability of the Conservatives to deliver real change is being truly shaken.
The Liberal Democrats will continue to point out the systemic failures of the constitution. They will continue to make the case for real reform, not just the cosmetic changes of open primaries and other gimmicks. Above all, we will continue to challenge the entrenched self interest of both the Labour and the Conservative Parties. The political class must be overthrown. We can change the constitution now or face non-constitutional even violent challenges in a few years time.
The corruption of money is a threat to freedom already. Real leadership is now needed to restore trust- and that means real and radical constitutional reform.