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Gordon Prentice - Talking Politics

My occasional blog on politics. Going where the fancy takes me.

Stephen Harper: on the way out PDF Print E-mail
Written by Gordon Prentice   
Sunday, 18 October 2015 00:00

Tomorrow Canada votes. The polls tell us seven out of ten Canadians want to see the back of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his jaded Government.

The Conservative campaign has plumbed the depths, reaching a new low on Saturday when Harper and the Ford brothers joined the Party faithful at a rally in Toronto. Harper allowed himself to be photographed with former Toronto mayor, Rob Ford, who, at various times, has smoked crack, consorted with gangsters and threatened to kill people. And he lies. All the time.

Little wonder, then, that I read in the press today (Sunday) that a lawyer who used to be on the PM’s staff says the Conservatives have lost the moral authority to govern.

The nation’s leading conservative newspaper, the Globe and Mail, ties itself in knots arguing for the re-election of a Conservative Government but without Harper. They want him to disappear.

We shall see how the anti-Conservative vote breaks but the polls point to a resurgent Liberal Party under Justin Trudeau, gaining ground at the expense of an overly-cautious NDP, nailing its flag to fiscal conservatism just when Canadians are looking for something different.

The Conservatives will lose this election but the shape of the new Government is harder to predict.

Some kind of Liberal/NDP coalition or arrangement is on the cards.

Last Updated on Monday, 19 October 2015 02:53
When did Cameron first learn that Ashcroft was a tax cheat? PDF Print E-mail
Written by Gordon Prentice   
Tuesday, 22 September 2015 20:39

Michael Ashcroft asserts in the foreword to his new book “Call Me Dave” that he discussed his tax status with David Cameron in 2009 in detail.

On 2 March 2010, Cameron said:

“Clearly the full details of Lord Ashcroft’s tax status are something between him and the Inland Revenue and those full details are only known by him and the Inland Revenue and that is as it should be for him as for anyone else.”

We are told that Cameron only found out about the peer’s non dom status in February 2010.

On Monday morning, 1 March 2010, just as the Ashcroft revelations were breaking, I bump into David Cameron in Portcullis House. He says with a beaming smile:

“Well, you’ve got what you wanted now.”

In one sense that was true. My three year long battle using FoI legislation had finally forced the tax cheat to show his hand and tell the world he was a non dom.

But I believe now as then that Cameron had been complicit. He, William Hague and others knew about Ashcroft's tax dodging long before 1 March 2010.

In his book on the 2010 General Election, Minority Verdict, Ashcroft tells us he felt let down by the Conservative leadership who “could have mounted a more spirited defence” of his actions when he finally revealed his non dom status after a decade of evading the issue.

If Ashcroft really wants to wound David Cameron, we need to know where and when this conversation took place and if there were any other people present. It is in Ashcroft’s DNA to cheat and dissemble so his word alone is not enough.

Last Updated on Saturday, 26 September 2015 02:42
Caroline Flint and Jeremy Corbyn PDF Print E-mail
Written by Gordon Prentice   
Sunday, 30 August 2015 21:32

I see Caroline Flint will constantly remind Jeremy Corbyn of the recipe for election success if she is elected Deputy Leader. Emulate Tony Blair.

Caroline will never allow the Blairite flame to be extinguished.

In the old Blair days, prepared questions for the great man to answer at PMQs were regularly handed out by the whips to backbenchers who had been drawn high up in the weekly ballot. Those MPs who wanted to ask their own question were asked to give the whips the gist of it so they in turn could give the Prime Minister the heads-up. I never participated in this charade. If someone is clever enough to be PM they should be able to think on their feet like the rest of us.

Whatever the controversy of the day, Caroline Flint would always stay on message, parroting the line to take, never forgetting a word.

Well, not always.

I recall being in the Commons Chamber for Prime Minister’s Questions on 15 November 2000 and she was springing to her feet every few minutes. She hadn’t been drawn in the ballot but she was doing her best to catch the Speaker’s eye.

Blair had just finished answering a question from the Northern Ireland MP, Jeffrey Donaldson, who wanted an assurance there would be no reform of the RUC while the IRA were still active.

Blair sat down and a host of Labour MPs stood up, hoping to be called next.

Michael Martin spots Caroline on her feet and calls out her name.

She replies: “Someone else has already asked my question so I’ll sit down”

I squirm with embarrassment for her – as do others - but she seems totally unfazed.

Later, she is roasted alive in the press.

The late great Simon Hoggart in one of his Guardian sketches at the time, dubbed her “the greasiest Labour MP of all”.

He went on: “Even in the new Labour Party Ms Flint is regarded as something of a hard-line toady, an aardvark-tongued bootlicker, a member of an active service unit in the greaser’s provisional wing.”

Ouch! Even after all these years his words still pack a punch.

Anyway, maybe she has hit the ceiling career-wise.

Ladbrokes today puts Caroline Flint at 14/1 and a Corbyn/Flint team at 16/1. Clearly, the bookies don’t believe she is even close to getting elected.

And the latest apocalyptic broadside from Blair will help Corbyn no end.

Last Updated on Monday, 31 August 2015 02:48
Gordon Brown and Jeremy Corbyn PDF Print E-mail
Written by Gordon Prentice   
Sunday, 16 August 2015 20:47

It was a speech that was widely trailed. Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown was to speak out on the leadership contest.

And today (Sunday) the Guardian’s Michael White reminds us that for Gordon Brown in 2007 the pursuit of power was everything.

When Blair was forced out in 2007 Broon was determined there should be no other challenger for the leadership. I nominated John McDonnell because I felt strongly there should be a contest. In the event no-one other than Broon crossed the threshold. Arms were twisted and inducements offered to MPs and there was, of course, no election just a coronation.

My old friend and constituency near neighbour, Jack Straw, who was Broon's campaign manager at the time, talks about this quite candidly - and unapologetically - in his autobiography, "Last Man Standing" (page 492):

" MP needs the nominations of one eighth of the Parliamentary Labour Party to get on to the ballot paper... The task here was to sign up 291 Labour MPs so that no other candidate could stand.

There was, of course, a Faustian pact between Broon and Blair.

Broon would overtly support an increasingly unpopular Blair in the 2005 general election in return for a cast-iron assurance by Blair that he would step down in mid-Parliament, allowing Broon to succeed him.

Broon had a long history of manoeuvring against Blair, going way back to the supposed agreement at Granita Restaurant that would allow the Party leadership to be carved up on a 50:50 basis. So many years for you; so many for me. That's the way it was in those days.

Jack wonders aloud in his autobiography if, perhaps, it would have been better to have a contested leadership election in 2007, before dismissing the idea:

"There has been much talk since that it would have been better, for Gordon as well as for the Party, if there had been a proper contest for leader. It certainly would have strengthened his legitimacy. But life is not quite like that. I've never met any candidate for any office who wouldn't have preferred an unopposed win. There's enough risk in politics without manufacturing it. If I'd been the favoured candidate for party leader, not Gordon, and was within sight of blocking off other contenders by perfectly legitimate means, would I have tried to do so? Of course."

We are not told what constituted “legitimate means”.

I think lots of good people are repelled by the kind of machine politics that delivers the premiership without the risk and inconvenience of a nominating election – even one held in the controlled environment of a PLP that had largely been lobotomized by New Labour.

Elsewhere, things are stirring in the undergrowth. A leadership survey taken by Labour International last month shows Labour members living overseas (like me) are backing Corbyn by a wide margin over Cooper, with Burnham and Kendall trailing. This tells me something strange and unusual is happening.

And earlier today I hear from a former MP and old friend who tells me he will be voting for Corbyn even though he is largely unconvinced Labour will win the next election under his leadership.

But, he says, Corbyn may set the Party on the road to understanding what it is for.

It seems to me this is a necessary first step if we are ever to get back into power.

Last Updated on Monday, 17 August 2015 21:57
Michael Misick and Corruption in the Turks and Caicos Islands PDF Print E-mail
Written by Gordon Prentice   
Tuesday, 30 June 2015 21:59

Last week the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (JCPC) decided the trial of the former Premier of the Turks and Caicos Islands, Michael Misick, on corruption charges could go ahead without a jury.

Misick and his fellow defendants – former TCI politicians – appealed to London on the grounds that the trial judge, Mr Justice Paul Harrison, did not have security of tenure – essential for guaranteeing judicial independence – and that they should, in any event, be tried by a jury.

The JCPC dismissed the appeal saying Judge Harrison was brought out of retirement specifically to hear the Misick case and that a fixed term appointment in these circumstances was not unusual.

A Turks and Caicos Islands jury would have to be drawn from a tiny pool of only 6,000 “belongers” out of a population of over 30,000. The JCPC remarked:

“There has already been relentless publicity, both in favour of and against the defendants, and there seems no sign of it stopping, whether or not the proceedings are pending. This case is so unusual, and the background to it so controversial, that it can readily be seen that it would probably be impracticable to find a jury composed of those with no prior knowledge of, or opinion upon, the issues at stake, and that even if such were possible, the identity of jurors would inevitably become known, thus exposing them to inevitable extra-evidential opinions and/or information, whether innocently communicated or not.”

That assessment is certainly true. When I was in the Turks and Caicos for the trial scheduled for December 2014 (which was postponed pending resolution of the Misick appeal) I asked any number of local people for their views on Misick and got a lot of blank faces. Local politicians were also circumspect.

In the TCI, people know all about the British Caribbean Bank and Lord Ashcroft but it is not something they want to talk about - especially to a curious outsider.

I don’t know if Michael Ashcroft is still a belonger – he may have given it up as being no longer worth the candle in the same way that he recently renounced his seat in the House of Lords.

But even though he will not be in the Turks and Caicos for the trial his presence will be felt. Ashcroft will be following it closely.

After all, he is, or was, a close friend of Michael Misick.

The trial, scheduled to begin in December 2015, is expected to last three to four months.

Labour’s Leadership contenders and the Greek referendum

As I was reading Joseph Stiglitz’s piece in the Guardian it occurred to me that I still don’t know the views of all the Labour leadership hopefuls on the forthcoming referendum in Greece.

Wouldn't it be terrific to hear where they stand on this momentous event which is unfolding as I tap tap tap this out.

I think I know where Jeremy Corbyn stands but, as for the others, who knows?

A critique of the situation facing Greece would tell us more about the candidates and where they are coming from than any number of carefully scripted personal manifestos.

Last Updated on Monday, 17 August 2015 21:59
Alberta Conservatives annihilated PDF Print E-mail
Written by Gordon Prentice   
Wednesday, 06 May 2015 00:00

In the end it was brutal.

The Progressive Conservatives ruled Alberta for an unbroken 44 years and, yesterday, they were trashed.

It is an astonishing end for a Party that most pundits believed could never be beaten in this low tax/no tax oily corner of Canada.

The left leaning NDP came from absolutely nowhere to take 53 seats leaving the PC with a rump of 10 seats – not even enough to form the official opposition. This mantle will now be worn by the right wing Wildrose Party.

For all its alleged imperfections, first-past-the-post is impressively efficient at getting rid of unpopular governments and sweeping the old guard away.

With PR systems, defeated politicians often re-emerge on Party lists.

No matter how hard you try, you simply can’t get rid of them.

Jim Prentice, the premier until yesterday, resigned as an MPP even before all the ballots were counted in his riding. He has gone for good.

All eyes will now be on the NDP.

Canada will be stunned if the Party replicates this astonishing success in the federal election in October.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 06 May 2015 20:05
Michael Misick and Michael Ashcroft PDF Print E-mail
Written by Gordon Prentice   
Monday, 13 April 2015 00:00

The trial of Michael Misick, the former premier of the Turks and Caicos Islands, has been put on hold until the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (The UK Supreme Court sitting when hearing appeals from UK Dependencies and some Commonwealth jurisdictions) can rule on whether his case can be decided by a judge alone, without a jury. Misick and other former TCI politicians are charged with corruption.

The Judicial Committee’s expedited hearing will take place in London on May 11 and 12.

Five years ago, Michael Ashcroft sued the Independent newspaper for alleging that he was, in some way, improperly involved with Misick. In the July 2011 judgment in the High Court, Mr Justice Eady, wrote: 

An inference is invited that the Claimant (Michael Ashcroft) authorised a loan by the British Caribbean Bank evidenced by a document dated 14 March 2007 signed by his son Andrew Ashcroft. His authorisation is to be inferred from the size of the loan, the fact that Mr Misick was the Premier, the fact that earlier loans had been made to him in 2004, and the potential gains to be made by Michael Ashcroft’s commercial interests in the Turks and Coaicos Islands from supporting a corrupt Premier. But the key assertions underlying all this are Michael Ashcroft’s “ownership and control” of the British Caribbean Bank and the claim that his son was “in thrall” to him and “acts in accordance with his will.

The Judge, in effect, told the Independent to put up or shut up. He said the newspaper

needs to give “their best particulars of Michael Ashcroft’s role in granting the loan and, specifically, of the nature of the favourable terms.”

…it cannot suffice to put forward a case to the effect that Michael Ashcroft simply must have been involved in some way or another. They need to come off the fence and decide exactly what the charge against the Claimant is. 

The Independent was unable to meet this requirement and settled.

Misick’s trial is expected later this year. Courteney Griffiths QC, pulled out from representing Misick some months ago, allegedly because his expenses were not being fully covered.

Ashcroft’s interests in Central America and the Caribbean are, of course, well documented. “Lord Ashcroft’s Millions” looks at how the peer made his money in Belize and in the Turks and Caicos Islands.


Ed Miliband and non-doms PDF Print E-mail
Written by Gordon Prentice   
Wednesday, 08 April 2015 01:22

A round of applause is, I think, deserved for Ed Miliband’s decision to scrap non-dom status.

This is not something that Tony Blair – in thrall to big money – would have contemplated in a thousand years.

Miliband’s move will come as a blow to my bête noire, the tax cheat Michael Ashcroft.

Until today, I had thought Ashcroft’s resignation from the House of Lords would allow the “proud tax avoider” to take up non-dom status once again. I had assumed that with a battery of tax lawyers at his side he would have been able to persuade a pliable Revenue and Customs that he is domiciled in Belize or wherever his heart now is.

Impertinently, he intends to remain “Lord Ashcroft”. After his announcement, he tweeted:

"Retired Lords keep their title and can use the facilities of the house should they wish to.”

Ashcroft has been preparing the ground for his exit from the Lords with some care.

On 22 July 2014, in a written Lords question he asked how many peers had not attended a single sitting of the House since the 2010 general election. We learn there is a long list of stale and utterly useless peers (including the “Canadian” Conrad Black, jailed in the United States for fraud) and, clearly, Ashcroft even then was looking for a way out.

Ashcroft was a complete passenger, rarely contributing to the work of the Lords even though he was appointed as a “working peer”. It was all bogus. His dribble of written questions over the years were on his pet subjects such as the Turks and Caicos Islands and benefit fraud.

He last spoke in the Chamber over six years ago, on 4 December 2008.

Last Updated on Friday, 10 April 2015 00:47
Time to get rid of non dom status PDF Print E-mail
Written by Gordon Prentice   
Thursday, 26 February 2015 00:00

I am keeping my fingers crossed that the Labour leadership will have the courage to include in the forthcoming Labour Manifesto a clear commitment to abolish non-dom status.

In 2008, under the Blair Government, the rules were tweaked allowing non-doms to continue to enjoy special tax advantages if they paid £30,000 every year to HMRC.

We now learn that HSBC Chief Executive, Stuart Gulliver, is a non-dom despite living in the UK for years. He has a house in Hong Kong and says he is going to retire there. As if! (The MPs on the Treasury Select Committee who grilled him were terrific.)

Seems to me all British Citizens should pay UK tax on their world-wide income. We could follow the example of the United States who taxes her citizens wherever they are. And here in Canada – where I pay tax – I am obliged to declare my worldwide income, such as it is, to the Canada Revenue Agency. Double taxation treaties prevent people being taxed twice.

With special tax treatment under their belt, buttressed by tax secrecy, non-doms have been laughing in our faces for years.

Ashcroft mocks us all

Yesterday, 25 February, the notorious tax cheat and former non-dom, Michael Ashcroft, in a Lords written question, smugly asked the Government to explain:

 “what they consider the difference between tax avoidance and aggressive tax avoidance.”

The Minister, Lord Deighton, explained:

 “Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) distinguish between tax avoidance and tax planning. Tax avoidance is bending the rules of the tax system to gain a tax advantage that Parliament never intended. It often involves contrived, artificial transactions that serve little or no purpose other than to produce a tax advantage. It involves operating within the letter – but not the spirit – of the law."

"Tax avoidance is not the same as tax planning. Tax planning involves using tax reliefs for the purpose for which they were intended. For example, claiming tax relief on capital investment, saving in a tax-exempt ISA or saving for retirement by making contributions to a pension scheme are all legitimate forms of tax planning. While such actions may reduce the total amount of tax paid, they are not tax avoidance, because they involve using tax reliefs in the way that Parliament intended when it passed the relevant legislation.”

Ashcroft "a proud tax avoider"

In September 2013, Ashcroft told a bunch of turnip heads at a Labour Party conference fringe event that he was “a proud tax avoider”. He reportedly received a “polite round of applause”. The self-confessed “notorious tax avoider” only gave up his non-dom status in 2010 because my successful FoI request forced him to. He still thinks tax is something you pay when you absolutely can’t avoid it.

Indeed, Ashcroft and his fellow peer, Lord Fink, have at least two things in common. They were both Treasurers of the Conservative Party and they believe tax avoidance is OK.

Fink says he doesn’t object to Miliband accusing him of tax avoidance. “Because you are right: tax avoidance, everyone does it.”

In October 2010, not long after Ashcroft had come out as a non-dom, he used a written question in the Lords to ask, tongue in cheek, whether the Coalition Government expected citizens “to organise their tax affairs in order to maximise tax payable”.

He was told by the Commercial Secretary to the Treasury, Lord Sassoon:

The Government expect citizens to pay tax that is due by law. The Government will take action against tax avoidance schemes that claim to produce results completely at odds with the intentions of Parliament.”

Ashcroft, who conned his way into the House of Lords 15 years ago when he promised to bring his tax affairs on shore, asked Sassoon in December 2012:

“whether (the Government) apply any principles of acceptability to legal tax avoidance practices; and, if so, what are those principles.”

Sassoon, playing it with a straight bat, replied:

“The vast majority of individuals and businesses in the UK pay the tax that is due and on time. The small minority that try to bend the rules to achieve a tax result, which Parliament did not intend, put a greater burden on the majority. That is why the Government are taking action to tackle tax avoidance by, for example, changing the law to close loopholes and by introducing a general anti-abuse rule to target artificial and abusive tax avoidance schemes.”

Corruption in the Caribbean

Michael Ashcroft – a citizen of Belize, a British citizen and a belonger of the Turks and Caicos Islands - clearly believes he is home and dry with all his dodgy tax dealings now far behind him, ancient history. The BBC's Panorama looked for evidence and there are lots of loose ends waiting to be tied up.

Elsewhere… The trial of Ashcroft’s old friend, former Premier, Michael Misick, on corruption charges will take place in the Turks and Caicos Islands later this year. The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London is considering whether the trial can proceed without a jury. (Every second person in the islands has the surname "Misick". I exaggerate for effect but only slightly.)

When I was in TCI in December 2014 I saw for myself the impact developers have had on the island. Beautiful pristine beaches in Crown Land sold off to shady characters with off-shore bank accounts. I also spoke to local politicians and checked out Michael Misick’s mansion, now up for sale, reportedly built with a little help from his friends.

Last Updated on Friday, 27 February 2015 18:25
HSBC, the Treasury Select Committee, Lord Green and the tax cheat Michael Ashcroft PDF Print E-mail
Written by Gordon Prentice   
Sunday, 22 February 2015 21:58

Next Wednesday (25 February 2015) the Treasury Select Committee will try get to the bottom of the shocking tax scandal at HSBC.

The one man who could shed some light of things, Lord Green, the Bank’s Chief Executive from 2003-06 and Chairman from 2006-10, is not in front of the committee and reports suggest he may not be called before it.

Green was recently doorstepped by BBC Panorama, but refuses point-blank to discuss his role.

The FT quotes a spokesman for Andrew Tyrie, the Committee chair, saying the committee will not be calling Green as it doesn’t want to “drag up the past”.

I read that my former colleague, John Mann, is unhappy about this – and well he might be. He should press the Select Committee to summon Green before them.

This is not as easy or as straightforward as it sounds.

Five years ago, my Freedom of Information request on the undertakings Michael Ashcroft gave to secure his peerage, was finally published. It forced Ashcroft to admit that he was a non-dom and had been ever since he cheated his way to a peerage.

He also misled his friend William Hague, then Leader of the Opposition, who wrote to the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, on 23 May 1999:

“Mr Ashcroft is indeed non-resident for tax purposes and has been for some years, during which time his principal business interests have been abroad. He is, however, committed to becoming resident by the next financial year in order properly to fulfil his responsibilities in the House of Lords. This decision will cost him (and benefit the Treasury) tens of millions a year in tax yet he considers it worthwhile.”

The Public Administration Select Committee embarked on an inquiry into Michael Ashcroft’s peerage but we knew we had to move quickly. Then, as now, a general Election was in prospect.

The Committee asked Lord Ashcroft and William Hague to give oral evidence. They declined. I recall being told at the time that there was a Parliamentary convention preventing select committees summoning members of the Commons or Lords.

In any event, the Chair of PASC, Tony Wright, received a letter from the then Conservative Shadow Leader of the House, Sir George Young, dated Wednesday 17 March 2010 informing us they weren’t going to appear before us. Sir George accused the Committee of being partisan before bluntly stating:

“In the days immediately preceding the dissolution of this Parliament, this inquiry inevitably risks being seen as partisan. I am writing to let you know that my Parliamentary colleagues who have been invited to attend are not inclined to do so.”

He went on:

“I think it best if these sorts of issues are explored in the round, and on a genuine cross-party basis, in the next Parliament.”

The whole truth of the Ashcroft deception, with all the twisting lies and distortions, would have been exposed if PASC had insisted on bringing Ashcroft and Hague before it. The convention should have been tested to destruction with the Committee reporting to the House that two key witnesses were refusing to co-operate. But we were right up against the wire with the election a month or two away. (The Committee had to make do with Hayden Phillips, the mandarin who waved the peerage through.)

I was hugely frustrated by this stonewalling and I recall Tony Wright telling me we had done as much as we could and to let it rest.

But history may be in danger of repeating itself. The scandal of HSBC should not be swept under the carpet until the next Parliament – which may mean never.

The Treasury Select Committee needs to assert itself and insist that Lord Green comes before it - and give evidence under oath.

Postscript on Ashcroft: Cabinet papers released to PASC in 2010 detail the extent of Ashcroft's deception.

Last Updated on Sunday, 22 February 2015 22:44
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