Hague on Ashcroft
People have to ask what all the fuss was about.
So said William Hague this morning when for the first time in 10 years he chose to answer fully rather than avoid questions about the friend, ally and multi million pound Tory donor who he put in the House of Lords.
Mr Hague insisted that Cabinet documents leaked to the BBC which outline the negotiations that led to that peerage proved that there was "no secret Tory deal" and that the hurdle that Ashcroft had to cross to become a peer was "always about him becoming resident" - not, in other words, about his tax status.
The fuss is, and will continue to be, about the funding of British politics and not the precise tax status of members of the House of Lords.
Ashcroft has boasted that he might be this country's largest political donor. He has said that his heart is in Belize along, of course, with many of his millions. It was, therefore, inevitable that questions would always be asked about him and his role.
What's more David Cameron has called for an end to the perception that political donations can buy honours, favours or position and he's argued for transparency.
Only now - under pressure from Freedom of Information - are we seeing a steady flow of information which has been held behind closed doors for so long.
For 10 years William Hague has known that Lord Ashcroft had no intention of becoming a full UK taxpayer merely to satisfy the demands of his political enemies.
This despite the fact that, as Leader of the Opposition, Mr Hague had written to Tony Blair in 1999 to say that:
"Mr Ashcroft is...committed to becoming resident by the next financial year in order properly to fulfil his responsibilities in the House of Lords. This decision will cost him (and benefit the Treasury) tens of millions a year in tax yet he considers it worthwhile."
This morning Mr Hague conceded that promise to pay tens of millions more in tax should, perhaps, not have been made and might well not have been met.
How then could the former Tory leader and his successor, David Cameron, claim that they only finally learnt that Ashcroft was a "non-dom" in the past few months?
Simple - they never demanded the answer about his current tax status since they regarded it as a private matter and were satisfied that, despite claims to the contrary, Ashcroft had done all that had been asked of him.
It's clear that Hague deeply resented the fact that his friend was initially blocked for elevation to the Lords.
Today's documents confirm that in order to secure a peerage Ashcroft promised to become a "permanent resident". In negotiations spanning from May to June 2000 he persuaded officials from the Political Honours Scrutiny Committee and the Cabinet Office that he did not need to become a full UK taxpayer.
He could, instead, become a "long term resident" paying tax here on his UK but not his worldwide earnings. Hague was told all of this.
It's also clear that some, perhaps all, members of the Scrutiny Committee wanted Ashcroft to go further - by becoming a full UK taxpayer - the course implied in Hague's letter to Blair.
Ever since Ashcroft has told people in private that his tax status is none of their business; pointed out "non-doms" sit on Labour's benches in the Lords; he's given assurances that he's met the undertakings asked of him; and insisted that he would not give in to pressure from his enemies and what he describes as "the left wing media".
The result has been that in public the Tories have looked evasive and secretive about their principal funder - in other words "the fuss" Mr Hague dismissed this morning which has threatened to undermine David Cameron's four year mission to "decontaminate" the Tory brand.
The Tory leader's allies say that he deserves credit for reducing his party's dependence on Ashcroft and for, eventually, insisting that he reveal his tax status. They now demand that Labour reveals who are its "non-dom" donors and why Gordon Brown made Lord Paul - a "non-dom" - a Privy Councillor.
The moral of the story is that rather like MPs when it came to their expenses, Messrs Hague, Ashcroft and Cameron did not foresee the impact of Freedom of Information and the fact that it forces out into the public domain things that politicians would prefer never saw the light of day.