Warm, real and raucous: no wonder the Tories (and 12 detectives) are out to get Angela Rayner

Setting the attack dogs on Angela Rayner shows us just how much she is feared—and if she resigns, it will only be a victory for cowardly conservative hypocrites more able to afford expensive tax advice 

April 19, 2024
Image: Alamy /Prospect
Image: Alamy /Prospect

Well, of course Angela Rayner should pay any tax she neglected, forgot, or otherwise avoided paying a number of years ago, if that did happen. But that’s not really what this is about, is it?

Do you remember Beergate? For weeks the Johnson government was on the ropes over a torrent of revelations about the apparent non-stop hedonism at Downing Street while the rest of us were obediently doing what we were told.

And then a smudgy video emerged of Keir Starmer appearing to enjoy a bottle of lager and a takeaway curry after a day of campaigning in Durham. Cue a tsunami of front-page outrage, a police investigation, howls of hypocrisy. And then… nothing. The Durham police found there was an empty void behind the headlines.

History often repeats itself as farce. This time it is Starmer’s deputy, Angela Rayner, in the frame. Oceans of ink have already been spilled in pursuit of whatever she did or didn’t pay, in terms of capital gains tax or otherwise, on a modest property in Stockport. And now, “at least a dozen officers” at Greater Manchester Police are reported to be investigating where Ms Rayner really lived in the 2010s.

If there is a silver lining in this unhappy story it is surely in this generous allocation of resources: there are a reported 12 knife crimes a day in Greater Manchester, but thank heavens the force has enough spare capacity to be able to fire up the blue light and screech into action. The residents of Stockport will sleep more soundly in their beds tonight.

How much money is at stake is in dispute, depending to some extent on how much Rayner spent on a reported kitchen renovation back in the day. One tax expert argued that a good accountant could have whittled the liability down to £1. Others say it’s a few thousand. But even a few thousand would help Greater Manchester Police in their relentless pursuit of tax fiddlers.

There are, it seems, three sets of people out to get Rayner. The first lot smell political opportunity, even if they can’t exactly say what she’s done wrong. The Conservative MP, James Daly, who reported Rayner to the police, has repeatedly struggled to explain to journalists quite why he did so.

The second set cry hypocrisy. Rayner, they point out, has been aggressive in pursuing Tory sleaze, so she had better be whiter than white herself.

Well, where do you start? The claims originated in the latest book by that most prolific of authors, “Lord” Ashcroft. Lord A actually resigned his seat in the House of Lords when it was put to him that he could not legitimately live in Belize for tax purposes while legislating for the rest of us.

A week after resigning as a peer, he sold shares worth £11.2m on which he would have paid capital gains tax. But by claiming non-dom status (which he had once promised to rescind in order to stay in the Lords) he could legally avoid tax.

And since the prime minister has been ill-advised enough to be drawn into the controversy, it feels only necessary to remind ourselves that his wife, Akshata Murty, potentially saved herself more than £20m in tax through claiming the same non-dom status as “Lord” A. Asked about her tax affairs in 2022, a spokesperson said such information was “not relevant,” and she has since stated that she will pay tax in the UK on her overseas income.

The third set of people just don’t like her. She’s Northern, she’s lippy, she’s working class; she’s—as they would term it—a bit vulgar. Raised on a Stockport estate, she left school with no qualifications and was a single mum at 16. Before working for a trade union, she was a care worker. It’s been a messy, if in some ways triumphant, life—but you don’t have to strain your senses to pick up the supercilious chuckles and smirks from expensively-educated sketch writers and political scribes.

The one time I met Rayner was at a panel event to discuss the role of care workers off the back of an article in Prospect by Madeleine Bunting. Too often these occasions can be taken over by the abstract chin-scratching of would-be policymakers, but this one felt much more grounded because Bunting had invited along some of the actual care workers she’d interviewed.

I remember Susie from Bridgend bringing all discussion down to earth when she described her working week, sometimes up to 50 hours, for which she was paid a salary of around £22,000.

Rayner joined us for supper afterwards and instantly bonded with Susie and her mum, a fellow care worker. The evening was transformed from one which could have been dusty and theoretical to one which was warm, real and, at times, even raucous. This, I remember feeling, was a woman with remarkable gifts.

No wonder they fear her. No wonder they’re out to get her.

Sometimes a single tweet can help you keep your head when all around are losing theirs—including some of Fleet Street’s finest attack dogs. This one went particularly viral: “Remember Jeremy Hunt forgot he owned 7 flats; Geoffrey Cox failed to declare £400k; IDS forgot a company paid him £25k; Theresa Villiers forgot she owned £70k of Shell shares; Zahawi forgot to pay £4.8m in taxes; Johnson and Sunak forgot everything.”

This was not entirely fair on Sir Geoffrey, who did indeed declare £468k of earnings for a second job involving 48 hours a month; and to IDS, who did declare a role advising a hand sanitiser company for around Susie’s annual income. Nadhim Zahawi’s tax difficulties—which ended with him paying HMRC a whacking penalty in January 2023—were considered no obstacle to him being appointed chancellor of the Exchequer, which oversees HMRC. So everything is relative.

Some bits of Fleet Street, to be fair, did unearth and ventilate some of these egregious lapses of memory and declaration. Equally, some editors could simply not bring themselves to ever acknowledge that Boris Johnson, in every particular, was less than a moral titan. His political and ethical failings were glossed over, his opponents savaged on his behalf.

To see these same titles wheeling out their heaviest artillery over Rayner’s relatively trifling tax affairs speaks to—how can one put this kindly—a certain lack of proportion. It may say more about the route a certain school of journalism has decided on than any gross lapse of integrity by Labour’s deputy leader.

We shall see. If Greater Manchester’s finest detectives—all 12 of them—turn something up, then Rayner has said she will step down as deputy leader. All those with more expensive accountants and more elaborate tax planning arrangements would enjoy a quiet chuckle.

Would British public life be better as a result? It would be interesting to ask Susie and her mum from Bridgend. Not that anyone will.