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Gin-soaked ploy: the Tories' tax-haven and airports expo

In Manchester the Conservative Party at the trough was at its brazen worst – selling bogus patriotism for the corporate coin. SOLOMON HUGHES bore witness

BORIS JOHNSON’S Tories are trying to rile people up with all kinds of nationalistic, “patriotic” and “culture war” themes. They were spraying these messages all over conference, with Tory ministers and MPs claiming to stand up for the “common man” against “traitors” and the “North London, metropolitan, liberal elite.” It’s ugly stuff.

But at the very same conference ministers and MPs were enjoying gin and whisky parties, receptions, rallies and seminars funded by the corporate elite. It’s an old game: get the masses on side with the politics of hate to distract them from the way all the money is going to flow – out of the pockets of the people at the bottom, into the pockets of the people at the top.

In the case of one event, the money looks set to flow offshore and disappear.

I went to a very large Tory conference rally with Trade Secretary Liz Truss addressing a couple of hundred delegates on the great possibilities for “Global Britain,” post-Brexit.

The meeting was organised by the right-wing Spectator magazine, but the event was “sponsored by” — paid for by — the Cayman Islands government. Liz, me and everyone else in the room were given free gin-and-tonics, thanks to the Caymans, who also hired the room. The Spectator have their own brand of gin — it is flavoured with Earl Grey tea, on the grounds I think that gin is very British, and so is tea, so this is doubly British booze.

So all the delegates could get half-cut on artificially extra-British right-wing gin while being persuaded by the Caymans that offshore tax havens are great.

Thanks to their “sponsorship” the Caymans got their top lobbyist, Eric Bush, onto the platform. He knew how to appeal to Tory instincts.

The Caymans were originally part of Jamaica, but when Jamaica stopped being a British colony and became independent, as Bush told the audience, “We wrote to the Queen and said we are British and we want to remain British.”

Images of the Queen, of “patriotic” islanders wanting to remain a colony raised a huge cheer in the audience.

But what really happened is the Caymans became a “British Overseas Territory,” an ambiguous status that allows them to be a tax haven, an offshore financial centre where money from Britain, the US or elsewhere can be siphoned off and guarded from tax.

Bush wants Britain to be even more accommodating to the offshore tax haven world after Brexit. Having won the audience over with stories about letters to the Queen, he said that as Britain leaves the EU the Caymans “need to be at the forefront of the strategies and policies and the forefront of the thoughts, hearts and minds of global Britain.”

“Taking back control” means letting more money flow offshore to an island where, as he said “Yes, it is tax free!”

Bush told the Tories: “The financial services sector we have, and it is one of the best and well-regulated in the world, has great successes and has a huge global footprint – we have a lot to offer global Britain” – for example they “have over 60 per cent of the world’s hedge funds domiciled in the Cayman Islands.”

Bush said “it’s not just the tax” that attracts the firms. Indeed it isn’t. Companies and oligarchs also love the secrecy. In the wake of the Panama Papers scandal, which showed tax avoidance, corruption, kleptocracy and criminal money swashing around the offshore world, there was pressure for reform.

After a long campaign, Britain is asking the Cayman Islands and other British tax havens to produce a “beneficial ownership register” — a list of who actually owns all the companies hiding on the tax haven.

In Britain companies have to say who owns them; in the Caymans owners can be secret. The Caymans want to change Britain’s mind and stop this “transparency” rule. It looks like they are knocking on an open door.

Liz Truss was asked about the Cayman example, where “corporation tax is zero, personal tax is zero” — is that a model for Britain? She answered: “I certainly think that, as we leave the EU, Britain needs to be a low tax, free-market leader in the world.”

So that’s where we are heading, under the guise of “patriotism” — not just having closer relations with tax havens, but actually emulating them.

Sometimes the corporate lobbying at Tory conference provided hyper-real moments. I spent a couple of hours in the “Heathrow Lounge,” being offered Johnny Walker Black Label whiskey by Diageo while listening to “free marketeer” MP John Penrose.

To unpick this: Heathrow Airport Ltd lobby by setting up a replica of a Heathrow “executive lounge” inside conference that offers free drinks, snacks, Wi-Fi, and comfortable chairs to a semi-select few. They want to make sure all the Tories’ talk of going “green” doesn’t limit their business.

It’s all a bit bizarre, because who thinks an airport lounge is a fun place to be? Even an executive lounge is just a way of making air travel less stressful. It’s not somewhere you really want to be, just somewhere a bit better than the rest of the airport.

But Heathrow hope their favours will make MPs like them. Diageo wanted to get in on the act because they like the “Enterprise Forum” — a group which tries to get big business influence over Tory policy — who organised this meeting.

Penrose himself is a thoughtful Tory of the right. He can see that “Corbynism” is quite popular and thinks that capitalism might be unpopular because there are too many cartels, uncompetitive behaviours and big business stitch-ups.

He thinks more competition regulation is the solution. I think this is wrong, but I’m more amazed that he can’t see that being offered corporate booze inside an artificial corporate environment inside the national conference of the ruling party is exactly what stitch-ups and cartels looks like.

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