Dish Rishi

Sunday National, 10th April 2022.

It’s important to remember the context. By the end of March, Rishi Sunak was already narked. The press had picked up the fact his wife received almost £11.6 million in dividends from Infosys – a business which continued to trade in Russia despite the war in Ukraine. Tetchy TV interviews followed. Sunak’s furious resentment being asked about his wife’s financial affairs was palpable. Just last week, he told the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg that he identified with Will Smith on the basis both were “having our wives attacked” characterising the scrutiny Akshata Murty was facing as “very upsetting” and “wrong.”

Things were only going to get worse for the Chancellor in the week to come. I want to take you back step by step through the story, as it is easy to overlook just how rampantly dishonest Rishi Sunak has been with the public in this week of collapsing alibis, wilful distortions and outright lies.

The Independent was the first to pick up the tale, reporting on Wednesday that Akshata Murty was understood to have non-domiciled tax status. In essence, this means she did not pay UK taxation on global income earned elsewhere. Non-dom status comes at a cost. In exchange for £30,000 a year, her million pound dividends from outside the UK escaped the attentions HMRC. To put this figure in some kind of context, a UK taxpayer earning £100,000 a year pay over £30,000 to the exchequer. Murty’s reported income from outside the UK exceeded £11,000,000 last year.

The first official response was silence. Then the damn broke and a press statement from the chancellor finally emerged. And it was what the late Alan Clark might have called “economical with the actualité.” And stupidly, obviously so.

The basic line was that the questions being asked about Murty’s tax status were a “smear,” a “political hit job” and “dirty tricks.” In the bad old days, you smeared someone by peddling falsehoods about them to damage their reputations. In Sunak’s version, a smear is accurately reporting someone’s tax status. There then followed a series of distortions about why Murty was registered as a non-dom.

First, the chancellor tried to suggest she was a victim of bureaucratic circumstances beyond her control. The notice read “Akshata Murty is a citizen of India, the country of her birth and parents’ home,” implying that she holds her non-dom status because “India does not allow its citizens to hold the citizenship of another country simultaneously. So, according to British law, Ms Murty is treated as non-domiciled for UK tax purposes.” This was a lie.

There are two distortions here. The phrase “is treated” suggests her tax status was something which happened to her, rather than a choice to obtain and retain. But as tax experts promptly pointed out – this isn’t true. You have to claim non-dom status in the UK, and essentially pay the British state an annual retainer to ensure the rest of your global income doesn’t come to the attention of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs.

The second distortion in the statement was its conflation of Murty’s citizenship with her UK tax status. Sunak implied that all the people being beastly about his wife’s entirely private affairs are effectively demanding she exile herself forever from the land of her birth. But this also isn’t true.

Come Thursday, the chancellor went on the attack in the Sun newspaper, doubling down on the claim that his family were the victim of “smears” and the lie that critics of his wife’s financial arrangements were somehow demanding that she relinquish her Indian citizenship. He argued that “it wouldn’t be reasonable or fair to ask her to sever ties with her country because she happens to be married to me. She loves her country. Like I love mine, I would never dream of giving up my British citizenship. And I imagine most people wouldn’t.”

And Sunak added a third theme to the mix – the idea that taking an interest in the financial affairs of his spouse was somehow misogynistic and an invasion of his wife’s privacy. “She’s a private citizen, and of course I support my wife’s choices. She’s not her husband’s possession,” he told the tabloid. The whole interview was saturated in resentment and self-pity.

“My family are off-limits” is a macho line fictional politicians get to say in TV shows. But it isn’t true – and rightly so – when it comes to their economic interests. The chancellor of the exchequer should be able to fathom this obvious fact: it’s written into the Ministerial Code.

On appointment to each new office in government, ministers must provide the civil service “with a full list in writing of all interests which might be thought to give rise to a conflict” and makes clear “the list should also cover interests of the minister’s spouse or partner and close family which might be thought to give rise to a conflict.” The idea the offshore earnings of the chancellor’s immediate family aren’t the subject of legitimate public interest is a bad joke.

Then on Friday evening, another statement dropped. This time from Akshata Murty herself. And it confirms that the spin campaign mounted by her husband and his Conservative allies just days before was a tissue of lies.

While emphasising her tax status “is entirely legal and how many non-domiciled people are taxed in the UK,” Murty said “it has become clear that many do not feel it is compatible with my husband’s role as chancellor. I understand and appreciate the British sense of fairness and do not wish my tax status to be a distraction for my husband or to affect my family. For this reason, I will no longer be claiming the remittance basis for tax.”

Notice the c word there – claiming. Gone is the false suggestion non-dom status is something which just happened to her. And gone too was the accusation that Sunak’s critics were essentially requiring his wife to turn her back on India. “My decision to pay UK tax on all my worldwide income will not change the fact that India remains the country of my birth, citizenship, parents’ home and place of domicile,” she said. Which is funny – because the only person suggesting that this decision would have robbed Murty of her Indian citizenship was her husband. Another lie.

The week from hell wasn’t finished with the chancellor yet. On Friday morning, Sky News broke new ground, suggesting that Sunak and his wife also maintain a United States green card entitling them to permanent residence there. The first reaction from the chancellor’s spinner was that “neither of them had green cards.” By tea-time, this holding position had collapsed, and Sunak was forced to concede that he’d held onto his US permanent residency until as recently as October 2021, more than six years after he was elected as an MP, more than three years since he first became a minster of the crown, and over a year and a half since he became the second most senior minister in the UK government.

That passive voice crept back into the official statement. “As required under US law and as advised, he continued to use his green card for travel purposes. Upon his first trip to the US in a government capacity as chancellor, he discussed the appropriate course of action with the US authorities. At that point it was considered best to return his green card, which he did immediately,” Sunak’s spokeswoman said.

It must’ve been surprising to discover that your wife doesn’t technically live with you on a permanent basis. Remembering that you’re technically a permanent resident of the United States of America while the rest of the world thinks you’re beavering away in Downing Street on the affairs of the nation is something else.

We know the chancellor struggles to work his debit card, but are we really supposed to believe this innocent abroad routine? Are we really supposed to swallow the idea that these smart, minted, formidably lawyered-up people got hold of green cards by mistake, and relinquished them after a friendly tête-à-tête with the notoriously friendly folks of the Department for Homeland Security? As a family friend with experience of the American immigration system observed, “having gone through the nightmarish process and helped others through it, it’s not an easy mistake to make.”

Sunak’s sympathisers in the media are already itching to argue that “the chancellor has fallen victim to a form of prejudice” and that his week from hell is the result of some kind of “wealth envy.” But look at the record again. Look again at the string of statements made by the chancellor this week. Defensive, aggressive and consistently dishonest – Sunak has piled wilful distortion on wilful distortion in this affair. His nerves may be shredded this weekend, but so too should any reputation he enjoys for straight-talking. He’s taken the public for fools.

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