Friday 8 April 2016

Is it time for the public to make David Cameron resign?

When the first details of the "Panama Papers" were released, David Cameron thought he could bluster his way out of it. He thought that he could just recycle the same tired old Tory rhetoric about getting tough on tax-dodging, and tell the public how the use of secretive offshore shell companies is "not morally acceptable". He thought he could put on this kind of performance for a little while until the public furore died down, then go back to doing nothing serious about the tax-dodging issue, as he'd been doing for the last six years.

As more and more of the dodgy details of his fathers' offshore business empire came out (like the fact it never paid a penny of tax on its UK profits for 30 years) David Cameron thought that he could stonewall the public with evasiveness, outright 
refusals to answer simple questions, and absurd press releases about how his financial affairs are supposedly a "private matter".

The problem for David Cameron is that the financial affairs of our elected officials (and their immediate families) are not actually a "private matter" at all. The reason the Parliamentary Register of Members' Financial Interests exists is so that the public can see whether our elected officials have financial conflicts of interest when they are making or voting on legislation.

Once a person decides to run for public office (any kind of elected position from lowly parish councillor to a Member of Parliament, cabinet minister or Prime Minister) they are obligated to accept the rule that they must declare their financial interests, meaning that their personal financial arrangements are no longer a "private matter".

This isn't just the opinion of some "leftie" blogger. It's a fact. It's part of the job description of all politicians in democratically accountable societies.

On Thursday the 7th of April (three days after the Panama Papers crisis erupted) David Cameron finally admitted that he personally benefited from his father's dodgy offshore business interests when he sold £31,500 worth of shares in January 2010 (
just months before he became Prime Minister).

This admission was made in a specially arranged ITV interview with the notoriously Tory-friendly journalist Robert Peston, who even allowed David Cameron to make pathetic appeals for public sympathy with claims it had been "a difficult few days".

The worst aspect of Peston's interview (and an awful lot of the subsequent mainstream media press coverage), is that Cameron hasn't been asked whether he ever considered declaring his shares in Blairmore (or the profits from his sale) on the Register of Members' Financial Interests.

A look at the specific rules shows how ridiculously lax they are when it comes to MPs shareholdings. According to articles 9a and 9b of the code of conduct, an MP can apparently hold shares in a company without declaring it on the register as long as the value of the shares does not exceed 100% of their parliamentary salary, or 15% of the share capital of the company. This means that a front bench minister could hold £130,000 worth of shares in a huge array of different companies without specifically having to declare any of them under article 9 of the rules!

In my view this staggeringly lax rule on MPs shareholdings needs to be changed to a much lower figure, something like the £500 limit on gifts, or the £1,500 limit on benefits (freebies like tickets to events).

There is however one other rule that needs to be taken into account when considering David Cameron's failure to register his shares in Blairmore (or the proceeds of their sale), which can be found in section 57 of the code of conduct:

"It is sometimes appropriate to register shareholdings falling outside Categories 9a and 9b. In considering whether to do so, Members should have regard to the definition of the main purpose of the Register: "to provide information of any financial interest or other material benefit which a Member receives which might reasonably be thought by others to influence his or her actions, speeches or votes in Parliament, or actions taken in his or her capacity as a Member of Parliament". If a Member considers that any shareholding which he or she holds falls within this definition, the Member should register the shareholding under Category 11."
Maybe David Cameron is so wealthy that he thinks that a £12,500 investment that he sold for £31,500 is such an insignificant matter that nobody could possibly believe it could have any influence over his actions as an MP?

I imagine that many of us would struggle to imagine a scenario in which a five figure financial investment would be so insignificant to us as to have no influence at all on our actions. I guess it just shows what a different world people like David Cameron must occupy if they believe that five figure investments are far too insignificant to even bother registering, and that nobody in Britain could possibly believe that such investments might have any influence over their actions.

In light of David Cameron's admission it becomes clear that every single time David Cameron has talked-tough about tax-dodging as Prime Minister (like in 2012 when he slammed Jimmy Carr's tax-dodging escapades as "morally wrong") he damned well knew that he'd personally benefited from selling a stake in his father's offshore business empire, but he was completely confident that nobody would ever see his hypocrisy because he'd deliberately failed to register his shares (or their sale) on the Register of Members' Financial Interests, and because he assumed that his offshore dealings would always remain secret.

The important issue here isn't David Cameron's hypocrisy - if MPs and Prime Ministers could be removed from office for hypocrisy, David Cameron (and several of his cabinet minsters) would have been forced out of office long ago. 

The important issue isn't David Cameron's dishonesty either. He's got away with telling one lie after another for years, completely safe in the knowledge that the worst that would ever happen to him is the sending of a stern letter by the UK statistics authority.

The important issue is that David Cameron deliberately failed to declare some of his financial interests even though it's not remotely possible that he could have thought there would have been no public interest in his offshore investments.

It's absolutely clear that the reason David Cameron decided not to declare his offshore investments is because he knew perfectly well that such an investment "
might reasonably be thought by others to influence his or her actions, speeches or votes in Parliament, or actions taken in his or her capacity as a Member of Parliament", which means that he was in clear violation of article 57 of the code of conduct for nine years.

This issue is a matter of public standards. If David Cameron is allowed to simply brush off his failure to declare his financial interests in his fathers' offshore business empire for nine years of his parliamentary career as some kind of oversight, or try to argue that "it wasn't against the exact letter of the law - so it's OK"* - the public would be giving our acquiescence to more of this kind of moral impropriety in the future.

If David Cameron doesn't have the moral decency to resign over this issue (which no doubt he doesn't), the British public have a duty to make him resign, otherwise we'd be sending the message to all the other self-serving MPs in parliament that they're absolutely fine to continue owning and not declaring significant chunks of offshore business empires (as long as the value of their chunk does not exceed their annual parliamentary salary).

The people of Iceland have shown that it's possible to force a Prime Minister's resignation over financial impropriety, so it's not beyond the bounds of reason that David Cameron could be forced to resign if the public pressure became strong enough.

What we can do

There is going to be a protest outside Downing Street calling for David Cameron's resignation. You could sign up to the protest on the Facebook page, but more importantly you could spread the word by using the "invite" function to invite anyone you think might be interested in joining in, or inviting other people to join in. The more people who know about this protest, the bigger it's likely to be.

Write to your MP to ask that they support a move to introduce significantly lower limits on MPs shareholdings so that scandals like David Cameron's Blairmore shares can never arise again.

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* Coincidentally the"it wasn't against the exact letter of the law - so it's OK" argument for David Cameron not declaring his significant offshore investments on the Register of Members' Financial Interests is precisely the same argument used by tax-dodgers to justify their use of elaborate tax avoidance schemes.

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