LONDON – U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron didn’t lie. He’s not accused of being a tax cheat. Unlike his Icelandic counterpart, he didn’t have financial holdings that presented an obvious conflict of interest. Even so, he’s in trouble.
Cameron is under attack for revelations that he benefited, albeit legally, from shares in a fund his stock-broker father had set up in Panama. Cameron is unlikely to lose his job, as Iceland’s Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson did, but his reputation is taking a hammering. That’s no small problem so soon before a critical vote on European Union membership, in which he is asking Britons to trust his judgement and vote to remain inside the bloc.
The ferocity of this reaction may look odd from outside the United Kingdom. Over in Russia, reports that some $2 billion have been stashed in offshore accounts and shell companies by a group of President Vladimir Putin’s closest friends have received a dismissive collective shrug. Russians expect their leaders to enrich themselves. In Britain, the news that a privileged prime minister made £19,000 ($27,000) with all taxes paid has sparked paroxysms of outrage. As the Financial Times’ Robert Shrimsley caustically put it:
“Teams of investigative journalists who spent months ploughing through the millions of documents have now proved that the British prime minister’s late father, Ian, ran an offshore investment fund that seemingly did nothing illegal. Even more serious for Mr. Cameron is the revelation that his father had been doing nothing seemingly illegal without his son’s direct involvement.”
Of course, the legality is not the issue. Cameron has been swept up in the tsunami of anti-establishment, anti-globalization, anti-corporate, anti-banker, anti-mainstream political sentiment that has elevated the electoral fortunes of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in the United States, Marine Le Pen in France and Jeremy Corbyn in the U.K.
If it’s a bad time to be a center-anything politician, it’s a horrible time to be a well-off, privately educated pol whose parents also did pretty well. And if you happen to have professed a concern for the middle classes and disadvantaged while in office, your very existence screams hypocrisy.
But Cameron isn’t just a victim of the times. His “nothing to see here, folks” response to the Panama Papers was a bad miscalculation. It has undermined the honest-broker image he was seeking ahead of the Brexit referendum.
When first asked about the appearance of his father’s name in the huge leak of documents from law firm Mossack Fonseca, Cameron’s aides dismissed it as a private matter. Then they said Cameron held no shares in the Panama-based fund his father had set up. Like Peter before the cock crew, there was a third denial at a Q&A session in Birmingham.
“I have no shares, no offshore trusts, no offshore funds, nothing like that,” Cameron said. A Downing Street spokesman sought to put an end to it last Wednesday with yet another statement: “There are no offshore funds/trusts which the prime minister, Mrs. Cameron or their children will benefit from in future.”
This progression — and the studious use of the present and future tenses — seemed to scream that Cameron had something to hide. By the time he acknowledged gaining from the fund in the past, the details had ceased to matter.
The shares in Blairmore Global Equity Fund, which he purchased for £12,497 ($17,594 currently) in 1997, were sold in January 2010, before he became prime minister, for £31,500. Cameron had paid income tax on the dividends from the shares, but no capital gains because the profits were less than the couple’s allowance, meaning none was due.
What Cameron or his aides sought to hide was not dirty dealing, but the fact that he’s so different from ordinary folk. Having made a profit from money invested offshore — a euphemism for both privilege and subterfuge — sets him apart. It doesn’t matter that his involvement was entirely legitimate and on a scale that would barely register as a rounding error for some of Putin’s friends.
Cameron led his party to a convincing re-election victory in last year, but May is a long time ago in politics. It was before widespread tax avoidance by Google and other multinationals came to the fore, waves of immigrants washed onto Europe’s shores, or China’s economic stall-out took the shine off the recovery that’s provided Britons with jobs and a measure of hope for the future. This was a terrible time for Cameron to be identified as one of “them” — people who have money in places like Panama.
Therese Raphael is a Bloomberg View editor in London, writing about European politics and economics. She was previously editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.