Voters Have to Realise They are Not Impotent. So does Theresa May

When you think about it, it is quite extraordinary.

The state of British politics had never been worse. Then, Westminster was struck with numerous allegations of improper sexual conduct by MPs. In both parties, senior MPs have had the whip removed, or become the subject of investigation. Or both.

Still reeling, the Guardian published leaked documents about the tax arrangements of the super rich. From the Queen to the stars of Mrs Brown’s Boys, they are (it seems) all at it: investing their wealth in offshore portfolios to avoid domestic tax. The sums involved end up as staggering. The secrecy is incredible. How the rich can justify avoiding taxation when they are already so wealthy is inexplicable.

With both issues what we are dealing with as much a problem of culture as law. When Michael Fallon resigned, he talked about what was “acceptable”: he meant, what he could get away with. Equally, while no one is suggesting what any of these wealthy investors have committed a crime, they have done what they could get away with.

They get away with it mainly because the financial world has developed Byzantine structures of investment products that make avoidance easier, and the law has struggled to keep up. They get away with it because we let them. Not just politicians but the public.

For ten years, Lewis Hamilton has been a tax exile. He may have become Britain’s most successful F1 driver in history, but the has avoided paying British tax for a decade. Hamilton is nowworth £131m. But where have been the boycotts when this wealthy man picks up another sponsorship deal. He is paid to advertise because his name brings in money. Effectively, we accept his tax avoidance. Or we have.

Lewis Hamilton, Jimmy Carr, Gary Barlow… The list will go on. Until people realise their vast power, they will remain powerless. 

May could have tried to create a transformative moment for her party, for parliament and maybe even the country

It is not just voters who think they are without power. We have a prime minister who has created for herself new levels of impotence.

As headline after headline outed new alleged perpetrators, the prime minister remained silent. At the weekend Ambur Rudd defended the government on Andrew Marr - the question should have been: why is the prime minister not here?

She has been a member of parliament for twenty years, before that she worked in the financial sector industry. The idea that she has not faced sexism is risible.

Theresa May could have been leading this fight and making it quite clear that sexual impropriety at any level is wrong. She could have told Michael Fallon that it was wrong fifteen years ago as well.

Inevitably, these revelations have become political. Yet how has our second female prime minister managed to make the opposition look nimble on this? Why isn’t Jeremy Corbyn feeling the sweat for promoting Kelvin Hopkins after an investigation into his behaviour?

May could have tried to create a transformative moment for her party, for parliament and maybe even the country. If her speech to the CBI is any measure, she has failed.

The Paradise Papers provide a greater risk for the Tories. In voters’ minds, they are the party of the wealthy. Yet that perception makes May’s silence even more inexplicable. Why has she not been talking about her predecessor’s G7 chairmanship that saw action on tax transparency? The woman who talked about needing to fix the country’s “burning injustices” has been quiet about a great moral unfairness.

Teddy Roosevelt invented the bully pulpit and May is refusing to use it

It will never be easy to clamp down on tax avoidance. Labour’s attempts to pretend otherwise are similar to Tory pledges to avoid public services shortages by finding “administrative savings”. Both are last refuges of different scoundrels. However, May could have made it quite clear that if you avoid taxation, then you are persona non grata.

I am not sure how that would have gone down at her weekly meeting at Buckingham Palace but Teddy Roosevelt invented the bully pulpit and May is refusing to use it.

Hang the personal consequences. She could have said that from Hamilton to the Duke of Westminster, these people have profited from Britain. They owe who they are to Britain. The least they could do is - from a super rich vantage point - return the favour. And until they do, they can forget the gongs and trinkets; forget wrapping themselves in the flag at events such as the Olympics opening ceremony. If “the establishment” has been open to them before, they aren’t any more.

The peppered gloves of populism might not be Theresa May’s thing but she could have started a process that changed the culture.

Instead of clawing back her lost authority, May has been content to remain in Downing Street without authority. Time and time again, she has failed to regain her authority.

She has been lucky that the country is still sceptical enough of Corbyn that they have not rewarded his party with the kind of opinion poll leads enjoyed by previous leaders. That might not last forever though. Trump profitted from leaks that damaged “the establishment”. So might Labour.

If May fails again, her position in the Tory party might be least of Britain’s worries. The question becomes, who will realise their power first: May or the British people? And if it is the British people, what - with a vacuum of leadership - will they do will their power?

The auguries do not look good.

More about the author

About the author

Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).

A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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