Politics Summary: Friday, March 19th

More on the Lord Ashcroft scandal and William Hague's involvement with the £127 million tax avoider, nuclear submarines, Clegg, Darling, the BA strike and more.

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William Hague is said to have known for ten years about Lord Ashcroft’s secret deal to avoid paying millions of pounds in taxes. The details emerged following the release of confidential papers, reports The Times, revealing Ashcroft was only awarded a peerage “in the clear belief that he would sign a crucial Inland Revenue form, IR DOM1 (Domicile)”.

The papers also show that James Arbuthnot, Hague’s chief whip, “wrote in a letter in July 2000 that Mr Hague was satisfied that the deal met Lord Ashcroft’s undertakings” and that Arbuthnot and Hague “put pressure on Sir Hayden [Phillips, civil service go-between] to change the terms of agreement on which Lord Ashcroft was granted a peerage” – ie. to enable him to remain a non dom. Reacting to the latest revelations, foreign David Miliband told The Guardian the letters prove Hague was “intimately” involved in Ashcroft’s deception. He said: “It is now clear there has been a decade of deception at the top of the Conservative party and I repeat my call … that David Cameron sacks Lord Ashcroft.” And the Standard reports Lord Mandelson’s remarks that the affair shows David Cameron “lacks the ‘backbone and the bottle’ to find out about his major backer’s tax status”.

France has offered to join forces with the UK’s nuclear submarine fleet, with officials from both countries discussing a deterrent-sharing scheme, reports The Guardian. The British government, however, has opposed such a scheme, despite each nation’s “continuous at-sea deterrence” being described by disarmament campaigners as a “hugely expensive undertaking”. Britain’s nuclear deterrent alone could cost up to £100 billion once the fleet has been modernised. France has three nuclear-armed submarines plus a new sub yet to be deployed, each with a payload of 16 missiles, but unlike Britain it also has aircraft capable of carrying nuclear bombs Unlike Britain it also has aircraft capable of carrying nuclear bombs A French official told The Guardian: “We have talked about the idea of sharing continuity at sea as part of a larger discussion about sharing defence burdens.” Later today Left Foot Forward will look at the defence implications of the Budget.

The Liberal Democrats “could support the Tories in a minority government”, reports The Independent – despite “profound differences” between the two paries. In a report out today, CentreForum, a liberal think-tank, says policy divisions would prevent Nick Clegg entering into a formal coalition and sitting in Cabinet, but there would be huge pressure on him “to act responsibly” in a hung parliament and “sustain the Tories in power” if they won more seats. The report, “A Lib-Con trick”, will say that Lib Dems are sceptical Cameron’s claim to be a “liberal Conservative”, citing “Tory plans to cut inheritance tax, the party’s ‘ardent Euroscepticism’ and its failure to turn its ‘green rhetoric’ into hard policy”. Report author Julian Astle concludes by writing: “With many Tory members and supporters now openly questioning the veracity of the climate change science, many Lib Dems suspect that, in presenting his party as ‘the new environmental party in Britain’, the Tory leader is ‘spinning’ like the windmill on his Notting Hill home.”

The Chancellor will use an unexpected revenue windfall to cut debt in next week’s Budget, trimming projected borrowing “by £5bn to £10bn”, reports the Financial Times. Public spending is on course to end the year close to target, adds the report, meaning that the government will be in the red by about £170bn, compared with a pre-Budget report forecast of £177.6bn, enabling Alistair Darling to make debt reduction a priority and put the public finances on a sounder footing. The report says that the Chancellor “hopes that improved revenues and borrowing forecasts will enable him to send a ‘steady as she goes’ message: that there is a recovery, he has a plan for deficit reduction and that he is sticking to the course he set out a year ago”.

And The Guardian reports the latest developments in the British Airways dispute, talks to avert tomorrow’s three-day strike “hanging by a thread”. As talks enter a final day, BA chief exec Willie Walsh and Unite joint general-secretary Tony Woodley were attempting to draw up a document that would allow the union to suspend the walkout. The face-to-face talks at the TUC had started badly yesterday, though many of the differences had been surmounted by last night. Even if a deal is agreed, however, problems may remain, with representatives of Bassa and Cabin Crew 89 warning they may not accept any compromise.

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