Panama leaks and avoiding a prolonged media storm

panama

Prime Minister David Cameron has been fighting a rearguard action this week in the face mounting criticism for him not coming clean about his financial affairs.

News that has father took advantage of tax havens for the family finances as disclosed by the Panama leaks, put him firmly on the back foot.

From a damage limitation perspective he and his advisors should have known that by not being completely open, when he had no reason not to be, they were only prolonging the attacks and deepening the crisis.

If he had nothing to hide, get the full facts out on the table let people take a swing at you if they still want to. If there is nothing to stick, then the story moves on.

Even if there was some truth this still would have been the best policy. But this is not how this was handled by Downing Street and why by Thursday the media was still talking about it.

On Monday after initial questions were raised the response was:”That is a private matter. I will focus on what the government is doing,” a spokesman said.

Obfuscation only encouraging the more questions which, by Tuesday afternoon, had forced him into making a personal statement.

“In terms of my own financial affairs, I own no shares. I have a salary as prime minister and I have some savings, which I get some interest from and I have a house, which we used to live in, which we now let out while we are living in Downing Street and that’s all I have. I have no shares, no offshore trusts, no offshore funds, nothing like that. And, so that, I think, is a very clear description.”

But still this wasn’t clear enough, by late Tuesday his office felt they needed to further clarify.

“To be clear, the prime minister, his wife and their children do not benefit from any offshore funds. The prime minister owns no shares. As has been previously reported, Mrs Cameron owns a small number of shares connected to her father’s land, which she declares on her tax return.”

By Wednesday morning there were still opposition MPs on broadcast media calling for further open transparency of all financial affairs. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell had published his full tax statement and urged the PM to do the same.

The response, yet more clarification.

“There are no offshore funds/trusts which the prime minister, Mrs Cameron or their children will benefit from in future,” said a No 10 spokesman.

A story which could have been killed dead on day one has spun out for three days giving opponents multiple opportunities to get digs in at the PM’s expense. The longer these points about his financial affairs go on being made, the more likely people are, despite the evidence to the contrary, to start believing the accusations that David Cameron was some way implicated in tax avoidance schemes. No smoke without fire and all that.

Now he may have wished this would all go away on Monday but clearly it wasn’t going to. By not thinking through where this issue was likely to go, he and his team were not effectively managing the situation.

This drip feeding and prolonged clarification of his position only resulted in the story being given more legs than it probably deserved.

Even now on Thursday, the opposition are still foaming at the mouth claiming that he must have in the past benefited from his father’s opaque tax arrangements as he inherited significant wealth from him.

That may be so, but can he really be held responsible for his father’s tax affairs? Are politicians now the guardians of what people can do with inherited wealth?

His father did nothing wrong legally, so should Mr Cameron junior be held responsible for how money he inherited was managed? Even if someone agrees that, yes, this is the case, what exactly should he now do about it?

Where does the line get drawn where it is a moral not a legal argument?

MPs have their own final salary pension scheme no doubt invested across a wide portfolio of funds and markets. If these are gone through with fine-tooth comb I’m sure that some must be invested in arms companies or tobacco firms. Is it not morally wrong for politicians responsible for looking after the nation’s health to benefit from profits being made from products that openly kill people?

Who’s to say.

Of course people are entitled to feel aggrieved when the rich and powerful put their vast sums beyond the reach of the taxman in Panama and elsewhere, when mere mortals hand over over so much of their wage to HMRC.

But there is no evidence that this is the case with the Prime Minister. With a little more thought about how he communicated this he could have persuaded a lot more people of this a lot sooner and lot more convincingly.

Postcript

Since originally posting this story has of course moved on.

The dramatic mea culpa that David Cameron previously did hold held offshore investments with Panama-based Blairmore Holdings Limited is now the fifth time Downing Street had issued a different response to this astonishing furore.

The public relations nightmare marks probably one of the worst weeks of his premiership. But it could have been so different, if he didn’t suffer the hubris that he could simply ride it out, rather than planning on how to read how the story would unfold.