It seems to be a day for home truths. In today’s Spectator I have written a piece about Boris’s “underwhelming” campaign and policy-lite “nine-point plan:”
Boris has acted until recently as if all he really needs is a two-point plan (point one: I am, and will remain, Boris Johnson. Point two: I am not, and never will be, Ken Livingstone.)
In pursuit of point one, Boris’s City Hall staff tried to position him as almost a non-political figure, a man who reached out to all Londoners, a funnier, more hirsute version of the Queen. He spent a lot of time opening things and making jolly, small and medium-sized announcements about subjects that don’t matter to most voters.
One day last year, as Labour was campaigning hard on violent crime, which had just started to tug faintly in the wrong direction, I looked on the City Hall website and found that Boris had been… er…“meeting Peter Andre to help recruit Reading Ambassadors” and…well… “joining his Street Party Ambassador, Barbara Windsor, at the ‘Big Lunch’ festivities on the South Bank.” The top item on the website’s front page was “London’s bees are in trouble. Find out how you can help them.”
Incumbents lose when they get too wrapped up in the administrative and adulatory aspects of the job and forget the politics.
And in today’s New Statesman its senior editor, politics, Mehdi Hasan, has written a frankly surprising but admirable piece of truth-telling about Ken’s use of a personal company to avoid at least £50,000 in tax:
I like Livingstone. But to pretend this isn’t tax avoidance is disingenuous. And his allies just don’t get it. I spoke to friends and colleagues of Livingstone’s who seem to be in total denial. “It’s a completely logical way of arranging your tax affairs if you have multiple incomes and expenses,” says a source close to the ex-mayor. I asked another ally how he could justify such tax-dodging behaviour. “Er . . . ah . . . um . . .” His voice trailed off. “It’s, er, normal.”
It might be “logical”, from a narrow, self-serving, money-grubbing perspective, but it is far from “normal”. Not for the vast majority – the 99 per cent? – of taxpayers in this country… The big problem for Livingstone is that he has been a vocal supporter of UK Uncut, which campaigns against not just (illegal) tax evasion but also (legal) tax avoidance – by Vodafone, Topshop and other big companies. “These rich bastards just don’t get it,” Livingstone wrote in 2009. “No one should be allowed to vote in a British election, let alone sit in our parliament, unless they are paying their full share of tax.” The former London mayor called for everyone to “pay tax at the same rate on their earnings and all other income”.
The word “hypocrite” is being whispered – and not just by the usual suspects on the right. “I think it’s bad for him,” says a former adviser to Livingstone who worked with him at City Hall. “People expect more from Ken” …The simple truth is this: you cannot run as the populist, banker-bashing candidate, the one who backs higher taxes on “rich bastards”, if you’re quietly channelling hundreds of thousands of pounds of your own earnings into a company jointly owned with your wife. You just can’t.
Most left-wingers, unlike KenCo, are not hypocrites. The disquiet expressed to Hasan by the former adviser is privately widely shared. But it’s been disappointingly slow to be expressed in public – so far, for instance, not a word, apart from one passing reference, has appeared in that great bastion of moral courage, The Guardian. That’s telling in itself, of course. But it is starting to grow – the Observer’s Nick Cohen broke the dam on Sunday, the Labour Uncut website did a piece attacking Ken yesterday, and now the influential New Statesman has weighed in. KenCo would be wise to take Hasan’s advice, and head down to his local tax office with a chequebook. Because even among his own supporters, this is becoming an issue he can no longer ignore.
PS: For anyone who hasn’t seen it yet, the reply by government minister Grant Shapps to KenCo’s demand that mayors be banned from taking second jobs is a modern classic. As Shapps put it:
The effect of your proposed regulations would have meant you were unable to serve as Mayor of London when you were first elected in 2000, since you were a Member of Parliament, had paid columns in The Independent and the Evening Standard, had a book contract with Victor Gollancz, and received five-figure sums from after-dinner speaking agencies….Calling for regulation on ‘full-time mayors’ whilst running a part-time company is as consistent as calling for a clampdown on tax dodging whilst using a company to avoid paying income tax.
Poor old Ken, a short-sighted elephant blundering into the most obvious of traps. Can there ever have been a top-rank politician with so little self-awareness?