We haven’t learnt anything new about Ian Cameron’s offshore interests - we’re simply being reminded of them at a very embarrassing time for the prime minister, writes John Underwood.
The quality of newsworthiness is hard to define, and even harder to dictate. On the face of it, for example, there’s nothing newsworthy about the ‘news’ that David Cameron’s late father managed an offshore fund based in a tax haven - a swift Google will reveal at least four years’ worth of articles mentioning Blairmore Holdings, the fund named after the Camerons’ ancestral home and founded by Ian Cameron whilst his younger son was at Eton. Most of the articles are based on a 2012 Guardian investigation that made much of Blairmore’s self-declared immunity from HMRC, and on which Downing Street declined at the time to comment. As a story, it might fairly be said to have blown over.
So one can’t help feeling a little sorry for the prime minister today, as Blairmore and his father are both named as part of the sensational ‘Panama Papers’ dossier. The set of eleven and a half million records, compiled by Panamanian corporate services provider Mossack Fonseca and secretly pored over by the world’s investigative journalists for months before yesterday’s media storm began, has not yet been shown to reveal anything new about the Cameron family’s involvement in tax avoidance; but for the prime minister, it couldn’t come at a worse time.
Last summer, David Cameron took several opportunities to announce his intention to ‘break the taboo on talking about corruption’, using both a speech in Singapore and an article for the Huffington Post to propose a global anti-corruption summit to be held in London. This summit is believed to be planned for May, and the NGO Transparency International observes that it will be ‘probably the first summit of world leaders to be focused exclusively on tackling corruption’.
The summit will include international organisations such as the World Bank and IMF, G20 countries and other nations with particular significance to the fight against global corruption. (It’s not known whether Panama will be represented, although the seventeenth International Anti-Corruption Conference is due to be held in the Central American country later this year.) With just weeks to go until this international forum convenes, the Panama Papers have hit the press at such a time as to virtually guarantee the two stories will be linked.
It’s important to note that Blairmore, which is now based in Ireland, has not been accused of any impropriety - the fund has never paid UK tax on its profits, but has avoided doing so in a scrupulously legal manner. However, David Cameron will hardly be thrilled to see his father’s name alongside cousins of Bashar al-Assad and close personal friends of Vladimir Putin. The Panama Papers will no doubt contain plenty of shocking revelations, but for some of the relatively small fry listed in the dossier, the most damaging aspect of the leak may simply be that they have become newsworthy by association. Sharing one’s lawyer with a dictator is seldom good PR.