David Cameron is facing fresh questions from Labour and the SNP over allegations by the former Conservative deputy chairman Lord Ashcroft that the prime minister conspired to mislead the public before the 2010 election about his knowledge of Ashcroft’s non-dom tax status.
Ashcroft, a billionaire businessman, Tory donor and former key Cameron ally, has said he is not seeking to settle old scores, but also claimed in a long-awaited unofficial biography that Cameron took drugs at Oxford University and was involved in an initiation ceremony involving mock sex with a dead pig.
In the preface to his book Ashcroft asserts he discussed his tax status with Cameron in 2009 in detail. He writes that Cameron was “fully aware of of my status as a so-called non dom. Indeed we had a conversation about how we could delay revealing my tax arrangements until after the election.”
But in March 2010 when Ashcroft confirmed his tax status shortly before a freedom of information disclosure which would have shone light on his affairs, Cameron claimed to have known about it for only for a month. A non-dom does not have to pay tax on overseas earnings in the UK, and Ashcroft had promised William Hague in 2000 as part of his receipt of a peerage that he would take up “permanent residence in the UK”.
The question about Cameron’s knowledge of Ashcroft’s tax status came after Downing Street was forced to deny the most lurid allegation in the book. No 10 sources denied that Cameron had been involved in any initiation ceremonies at university, saying he had not been a member of the decadent Piers Gaveston club where the initiation ceremony allegedly took place.
Earlier, the prime minister’s spokeswoman said she would not dignify the book with a comment, and pointed to the fact Ashcroft had himself said he was motivated by anger at Cameron’s refusal to honour an undertaking to give him a high-profile ministerial job in the wake of the 2010 election.
Jonathan Ashworth MP, Labour’s shadow minister without portfolio,called on Cameron to clarify his knowledge of Ashcroft’s tax status and whether he had agreed with Ashcroft effectively to mislead the British public ahead of the 2010 election.
He said: “Amidst the furore around Lord Ashcroft’s new book there lies a serious question mark over the consistency of the prime minister’s statements about the peer’s tax status.
“Lord Ashcroft stated today that he made the prime minister fully aware of his non-domiciled status in 2009. However, in March 2010, when his status was made public, David Cameron said the full details were ‘only’ known by Lord Ashcroft and the Inland Revenue. Furthermore, his spokesperson confirmed that David Cameron was only made aware of the peer’s status the previous month.”
The SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon, told Channel 4 News: “If I can perhaps make him feel better, he’s entertained the whole country on a dreary Monday morning, so there’s got to be something in that.
“Actually though, there is one thing – put aside all the lewd and salacious allegations that I have no knowledge of the truth or otherwise of them – but there was one serious allegation this morning that I think perhaps he does have to answer and that was about the fact allegedly he knew about Lord Ashcroft’s non-dom status much earlier than he admitted to knowing about it, so that’s one that perhaps shouldn’t just be allowed to disappear into the ether with some of the more lewd ones.”
On 2 March 2010 Cameron said: “Clearly the full details of Lord Ashcroft’s tax status are something that is 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.”
Cameron’s spokesman at the time said later that the prime minister had only found out about Ashcroft’s status in February 2010. His current spokeswoman refused to comment on Cameron’s knowledge in 2009-10.
Ashcroft himself gives no details of the date he informed Cameron in 2009. Ashcroft also asserts Cameron only offered him a post as junior whip in the Foreign Office despite ploughing £8m into the coffers of the Conservative party. He described the offer as “declinable”, and was subsequently told by Cameron that his appointment had been vetoed by Nick Clegg. The former deputy prime minister said he had no recollection of trying to block Ashcroft.
In the book, co-written by the journalist Isabel Oakeshott, a university friend of Cameron’s said they had smoked cannabis occasionally while listening to Supertramp as part of a group called the Flam club.
James Delingpole, now a rightwing journalist, told the authors he took the drug with Cameron and another friend at his room at Christ Church college, Oxford. “My drug of choice was weed, and I smoked weed with Dave,” he reportedly said.
This article was written by Patrick Wintour and Rowena Mason, for theguardian.com on Monday 21st September 2015 19.57 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010