Monday 22 February 2021
Sir Jim Ratcliffe is one of Britain’s richest men. His decision to move to Monaco after receiving a knighthood has angered those who recommended him and raises questions about how this country’s honours system works
Basia Cummings: It’s September of 2017 and Sir Jim Ratcliffe – one of Britain’s richest men – is in the pub.
The billionaire owner of Britain’s largest privately-owned company is, to be precise, in the Grenadier pub in Knightsbridge, in central London.
And it’s a small venue, but he’s there to launch a big new thing.
It’s a 4×4 car, championed as the heir to the Land Rover Defender, but updated… for the 21st century.
And it’s a very British affair. Jim Ratcliffe tells this pub-full of people, that this new car is going to be made by his company, called Ineos.
And he frames it as a vote of confidence in post-Brexit Britain.
[Clip: Sir James Ratcliffe speaking at Grenadier launch]
The car will be called the Ineos Grenadier – a rugged, tank-like thing. And it could create 10,000 jobs – ideally in the UK, Jim Ratcliffe says.
The promo video ends with a lion’s roar…
[Clip: Grenadier promo video]
So this is a launch event, yes. But it’s also more than that.
It comes just a year after another big event for Ineos, also in Knightsbridge, to celebrate Jim Ratcliffe’s return to the UK, after six years as a tax exile in Switzerland. Pints were being pulled by barmen wearing flat-caps, invitations to the event had the Union Jack all over them and everything was covered in red, white and blue.
And in that sense, it’s all a stark change of direction, and a very showy one, for a man who, until then, had been a pretty secretive petrochemical giant.
Because something had happened to Jim Ratcliffe. A life’s work quietly building a huge business… off the radar… the very antithesis of the flashy, high-profile tycoons that we’d come to know… Robert Maxwell, Philip Green, Alan Sugar. And suddenly, it seemed that the quiet life just wasn’t enough. As I say, something had happened. But what?
I’m Basia Cummings, and in this Slow Newscast I’m going to tell you a story about a Very British Business.
It’s a story about a story, really. About how Jim Ratcliffe seized on a clear narrative of Britishness, and British investment, and post-Brexit Britain. And he used it to turn around his image, boost his fortunes, and secure a knighthood.
It’s a tale of a particular kind of flag-waving – of Brit-washing you might call it – and it’s about hypocrisy.
Together with the investigative journalist Marcus Leroux and my colleague Alexi Mostrous, I’m going to tell you the real story of Jim Ratcliffe’s recent conversion to patriotism.
So… join me. Because all is not what it seems.
So really, in this podcast, we’re going to talk about five crucial years.
Everything you really need to know about Britain’s self-made petrochemical billionaire – what a description – has happened since 2016.
And 2016, you will probably remember… was Brexit. The year that we voted to leave the EU.
[Clip: David Dimbleby announces the Brexit result]
Now to some, that result came as a shock. To others, it was a triumph. To Jim Ratcliffe, it was an opportunity. Just not quite in the way you’d think.
At that moment, he was the richest and most powerful man you’d never heard of, and Ineos was an industrial giant that you only really knew if you worked in the chemicals industry.
But Ineos’s presence was almost everywhere… in all the plastics around us – in Lego, in bags, in straws.
And that was unusual. If you think of Britain’s other business giants – Robert Maxwell, Philip Green, as I mentioned… Richard Branson – you knew a bit about them. You’d know Maxwell, if not from his newspaper empire, then from his daughter, Ghislaine. You’d know Green for Topshop and tax avoidance, Richard Branson for trying to brand everything under the sun as Virgin. And you’d know Alan Sugar from the telly. The British public knew this breed of bombastic entrepreneur.
But Ratcliffe… was not one of them.
Until 2016. When the rebrand comes.
So – let’s go back to that pub.
[Clip: Ratcliffe in the Grenadier pub]
It’s a very “Best of British” affair. Jim Ratcliffe is thrilled about Brexit. He wants to show us all that he’s invested in a Britain unshackled by the EU – and so he’s dreamed up the Grenadier, a symbol of a new era of British manufacturing, to be built right here, in the UK.
Suddenly, he’s all about the Union Jack.
And at the beginning of all this, I did wonder if this was perhaps a sort of late-onset midlife crisis… a 65-year-old man who just suddenly wants to be relevant. Or celebrated, or adored. He wants us, basically, just to know about him.
But the more that we investigated those crucial five years, the clearer it is that this is no crisis. And I’m going to tell you why…
This isn’t just about Jim Ratcliffe: this is also about us. It’s about who we venerate in this country. And it’s about how Britain treats its wealthiest citizens, how it rewards them, what it lets them get away with… in a country where, it turns out, being a tax exile isn’t a barrier to Britain’s highest honours…
So first, meet Marcus. And let’s rewind a bit. Because we need to set the scene…
Basia: Do you want to start by just introducing yourself, telling us your name, what you do, a bit about yourself?
Marcus: My name is Marcus Leroux. I’m an investigative journalist at SourceMaterial, we’re a small non-profit investigative journalist outfit that do long-term investigations.
We started looking up Ineos and Jim Ratcliffe towards the end of 2019, on the basis that here was Britain’s richest self-made man and Europe’s largest petrochemicals company… They don’t open themselves up to scrutiny from the city or financial journalists. So there’s a bit of a mystery there about what this company doesn’t want us to know…
So as I said, Ineos used to be described as the biggest company you’ve never heard of. It was a quiet titan, a bit like Ratcliffe himself – a market leader in oil, gas and petrochemicals.
Marcus: Ineos began in the late 1990s with Jim Ratcliffe, he was a chemical engineer by training who worked in the private equity industry for Advent International. So private equity… their model is to buy a business, quite often an unloved or underperforming business, change the model, invariably sack a few people, and then try to expand it, to scale it up or improve it in some way. So that they can sell it three to five years later for perhaps twice or three times or five times what they paid for it.
Now, as a chemical engineer by training, Ratcliffe spied an opportunity to take control of unloved petrochemical assets, the deeply un-sexy businesses that make the ingredients, the components for plastics, the building blocks for plastics out of the leftover bits of the barrel of oil.
But Jim Ratcliffe doesn’t buy these businesses up for the private equity firm. He does it for himself. And he doesn’t sell them either. He keeps them.
Marcus: He started off in 1998 with a Belgian acquisition that made ethane. So it took stuff that was a natural gas – ethane – that made polymers out of them that it would end up in, for example, polythene plastic bags. And the big kind of transformative moment when probably the rest of the world started noticing Jim Ratcliffe and Ineos was when in 2005 it bought the Innovene business from BP, which trebled the size of the company overnight.
But still, very few people had heard of him.
Marcus: Ratcliffe is a singular figure, both literally and metaphorically. He’s tall, wiry, he stands well over six foot and has long, slightly foppish hair. He casts himself as a gritty Northern industrialist, a man forged in Manchester, steeped in engineering and science.
He likes to say that all of his fellow executives at Ineos are grounded, football-loving blokes who call a spade a bloody shovel. He’s ultra fit. He’s 68 years old, loves to run marathons and he’s skied to the North and South pole, and ridden motorcycles across Africa. He styles himself as a bit of an action man, and tries to imbue his businesses with that similar kind of active ethos. So he’ll take the graduate intake of Ineos to trek in the desert in Africa, and somebody who worked for one of the, one of the businesses he took over, described how he distributed Fitbits to the directors and gave them all a personal diet plan.
Basia: Looking at the things that Ratcliffe makes, things like – I’m going to struggle to pronounce them – acrylonitrile and polyisobutylene and chlorotoluenes. How does what Jim Ratcliffe makes appear in everyday life? Is he Mr Plastic? Is that basically it?
Marcus: That’s a large part of it. So the acrylonitrile butadiene styrene that you mentioned there, that’s a very common form of thermoplastic that you probably have in front of you at the moment in your recording studio. It’s the type of plastic that Ineos supplies to Lego, that’s actually one of the, one of the more tangible products they do. A lot of what they do will be ingredients for other chemicals companies, like sulfuric acid or hydrochloric acid… salt… But to get an idea of the full array of where their stuff ends up… you’ll have acrylic fibers in clothes, plastic bags, all of the plastic bits on cars – a big part of their business – the polymer that goes into new newfangled plastic pound notes, artificial leather, vinyl records, inflatables, luggage. Anytime you look at the man-made environment and open your eyes, there’s a very high probability that you’re looking at something that came through an Ineos plant at some point.
If you go back in time to around 2014, when Ineos was described as the biggest company you’ve never heard of, Ratcliffe was said to be reclusive. The unions used to call him Dr No. He was this sort of Bond villain, recluse, union-bashing multi-millionaire who resided in Switzerland. Didn’t give interviews. One of his friends said in a profile interview that he didn’t like the limelight – even the light in his fridge was switched off.
He avoided the limelight… until he couldn’t.
In 2013, after years building his empire, he got involved in a very public fight with workers at an industrial plant in Scotland. Called Grangemouth.
Morag Livingstone: Grangemouth is a vast refinery, which is situated on the Firth of Forth, which is west of Edinburgh. And the actual sites at the time supplied 70 per cent of the fuel to Scotland’s filling stations. And it was estimated to be about 8 per cent of Scotland’s manufacturing industry. So a vast site, very important, not just to Scotland, but to the UK.
That’s Morag Livingstone. She’s a writer and documentary maker who made a film about the Grangemouth dispute. And when she described it to me, I was right there – I could smell it.
Morag: Yeah there’s a slight smell of sulfur in the air. I think the first thing I noticed when I went there was the noise, the rumble that comes from the towers where the excess gas is released and burnt. There’s white domes, there’s silver, um, metal towers are all interwoven into a very complex petrochemical refining and processing of crude oil every day. So then on the actual Forth, there is effectively a floating harbour where the large ships come in. A lot of, um, ships from America, come in for… to support fracking, but basically in the sunlight it actually sparkles…
This episode in Jim Ratcliffe’s backstory is important, because it tells us a lot about how he operates.
Grangemouth was part of BP’s empire when Ineos bought it back in 2005. And then it was an unloved facility, bought with heavy bank debt.
Then came Ratcliffe’s characteristic drive to boost efficiency and ruthlessly cut costs. That is, after all, what he did – it’s how he made such a successful business empire.
And in 2013 that meant playing hard ball to change workers’ pay and pensions.
Morag: In 2013 about 1300 people worked at the Ineos plant and again, still thousands in the local community were reliant upon jobs, and indeed the plant’s success. Behind the scenes, unknown to many, the company – some say Jim Ratcliffe – but the company had approved to start stockpiling oil reserves etc, which would give longevity if there was a strike.
When workers at the site voted to go on strike, the company took its chance and warned the union.
Morag: We’re going to shut the plant down in a cold condition. Which to the trade union indicated a finality to the site. Normally, if you go on strike, you keep the refinery ticking over, um, kind of in a warm condition. Ineos announced that the plant would remain closed until there was four conditions, which they called the survival plan, were met. It was a very stressful weekend. The company approached employees directly and said, if you don’t accept these terms and conditions, we’re shutting the plant altogether.
Suddenly the closure of Grangemouth was a very real possibility. Hundreds of jobs were on the line.
Morag: And the company then had a series of what they call town hall meetings, which were meetings within the canteen – absolutely devastating for the community. Their view was that this was the miner’s strike happening all over again. They’d seen what happened in the miner’s strike with communities devastated, businesses not being replaced. And these are a tight community. They know that if this shuts, what’s next for them?
[Clip: News report about Grangemouth and its workers]
Morag: People were in tears. People I know, their whole family works at this site and their whole family would have lost their jobs. 800 people would have lost their jobs. Yeah. So, you know, over half.
In the end the union caved in and accepted the Ineos conditions.
It was a humiliating defeat for the workers, but one which Jim Ratcliffe said secured the future of the site.
[Clip: Jim Ratcliffe on Grangemouth]
And it was the beginning of creating a reputation for Jim Ratcliffe as a fiercely determined and controlling businessman.
And you can see it in what happened while the Grangemouth row was happening.
In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash, Ineos asked the British government for a grace period to pay a VAT bill – of £350 million. At the time, the company was struggling.
But when the British government refused to defer that bill, Ratcliffe and his executives, they just… upped and left. I mean, they still had to pay the VAT bill, but it was the push that saw them pack the Ineos bags for the shores of Lake Geneva – in the tax haven of Switzerland. They moved the company there.
And as you can imagine – it did not play well.
Together with the Grangenouth episode, it was seen as a window into the soul of Jim Ratcliffe – a billionaire who on the one hand could pressure his workers to make tough sacrifices, while he moved abroad over a bill.
And so, it became much more personal.
Marcus: There were demonstrators outside his house, outside his bankers’ houses as well. There was, at one point, an inflatable rat representing him being paraded at demonstrations and he took it to heart. And I don’t think it’s playing armchair psychologist too much, to see in that episode of him becoming a pilloried hate figure for the British left, to see in that episode the seeds of the latter Ratcliffe, where he becomes a much more high-profile figure. What somebody jokingly referred to as his late-onset midlife crisis, where he’s attaching the Ineos name to all sorts of high-profile projects, is in part a response to becoming a hate figure.
But believe it or not, the huge inflatable rat incident was only the beginning.
[Clip: Jim Ratcliffe talking about fracking]
It wasn’t just investing in UK shale gas that got Jim Ratcliffe panned. He was also criticised for an audacious plan to build a “virtual pipeline” across the Atlantic. This meant sending fleets of ships crossing the ocean with US shale gas – to enable Ineos to turn fracked gas into plastics.
Jim Ratcliffe, Mr Plastic, investing in fracking – I mean environmentally, this was all a disaster, and he was getting roundly criticised in the press.
It was a bruising few years – and he had gone from this relative unknown… to a character people felt they were starting to know – but what they knew, they didn’t like…
So we come to this really key moment. Brexit.
Jim Ratcliffe has been off in Switzerland. But suddenly, he’s back.
Marcus: You have Ratcliffe talking up the prospect of reviving British manufacturing by making a successor to the Land Rover Defender, a British icon. He’s going to help reinvigorate British manufacturing with, by, by making it here in the UK.
And around that time they announce with great fanfare that they’re returning. Ineos is returning its tax domicile to the UK. It has meetings with Greg Clark, the business secretary; it has a big red, white, and blue festooned party at its new, shiny Knightsbridge headquarters. And then this reputational PR Blitzkrieg is set in train.
And it’s quite something…
There’s the Grenadier 4×4 launch, and the purchase of a clothing company called Belstaff in 2017. This very British, very expensive, motorbike clothing brand.
Marcus: It bought a football club in Switzerland, FC Lausanne, which was followed a while later with Nice, a larger club in the top flight of French football. It replaced Jaguar Land Rover as the main sponsor to Britain’s America’s Cup challenge.
We’re talking seriously showy sponsorship here. In 2018, a £110 million investment in Ben Ainslie’s attempt to win the America’s Cup
[Clip: Ben Ainslie speaking about Ineos and America’s Cup]
Now these sleek futuristic boats with foils that raise the whole thing up out of the water, travelling at terrifying speeds… that was now emblazoned with Ineos on the hull.
And then, of course, there’s British cycling.
[Clip: Breaking news clip about Ineos and Team Sky]
Now, disclaimer: I’m a cycling fan, and I’m one of those weirdos who enjoys watching people race up mountains for hours and hours each day. So when Ineos suddenly took over from Sky in 2019, I really took notice.
After years as Team Sky – it’s now the Ineos Grenadiers.
Marcus: He doesn’t want to be one name on a Formula One set of overalls, roster of sponsors. He wants it to be Ineos and only Ineos. And nobody else insight. So when he took over the America’s Cup sponsorship, Ben Ainslie had to ditch all of his existing marketing and sponsorship commitments.
Recently they’ve become the main partner to Mercedes Formula One. And earlier this year, Ineos had its name attached to an institute at Oxford University. And we’ve not mentioned there, I think, the successful sponsoring the value of Eliud Kipchoge’s sub-2 hour marathon effort. Which, in a short space of time, is an extraordinary salvo.
And it’s important to underline here – the sub-2 hour marathon attempt was not a casual bit of sponsorship. Announced in 2019, this was an eye-watering investment, costing millions, trying to get a man to run at pretty much superhuman speed.
Taken together, this was an ostentatious move to reinvent himself, and his company.
And Jim Ratcliffe framed almost all of this as a vote of confidence in post-Brexit Britain.
When he announced that the Ineos Grenadier was going to be built in Bridgend in Wales, he told the press it was an “expression of confidence in British manufacturing”.
And it seems… something about it all really worked.
Marcus: It worked because once he returned from tax exile in Switzerland, 18 months later, after he had his homecoming party in Knightsbridge, he was knighted by Prince William at Buckingham Palace.
But here’s the rub. And here’s actually where we get to the real story.
Because the question of who deserves a knighthood – and whether paying your full UK taxes is part of the deal – has been a really lively one recently.
And if paying your fair share of tax in the UK is one of the qualifications for a knighthood, well then maybe Prince William had just tapped the wrong man on the shoulder…
So let’s rewind again. It’s 2010 and Jim Ratcliffe and Ineos announce they’re offing it to Switzerland. And at the time, they were totally up front about it.
On their website, they were clear: this would save them hundreds of millions in tax, and, in their words, would help them stay competitive.
And that’s what happened. The company grew into one of the world’s most formidable chemical conglomerates – bringing in billions of pounds in sales each year.
So it was genuinely a big deal when Jim Ratcliffe returned to Britain in 2016 – re-headquartering Ineos in Knightsbridge.
And as I said before, this was all framed as investing in Britain. So, if you were listening to Jim Ratcliffe that year, you might have taken this to mean that he and Ineos might be paying considerably more tax in their homeland, the country of their “roots”, as Jim Ratcliffe described it.
Well, not quite…
First off, I asked my colleague Alexi Mostrous, who’s the person I know who probably knows the most about tax – remember the scoop about Jimmy Carr’s tax avoidance? That was Alexi’s story – and I asked him: what should have happened tax-wise when Ineos returned?
Basia: So, tell me first off: what we would have expected Ineos to pay when the company returned to the UK?
Alexi Mostrous: It’s actually really difficult to work out exactly how much tax they should have been paying in the UK, mainly for two reasons. First, Ineos is a multinational. It’s got hundreds of subsidiaries operating all over the world, not just in Britain. And second, it’s Britain’s largest privately owned company, so unlike a public company like BP or Shell, it doesn’t have to release that much financial information.
But what you would expect if a company moved its headquarters from Switzerland, a low tax jurisdiction, to Britain, is that the company would, from that moment on, pay quite a lot more corporation tax in the UK than it did before. And what Marcus has discovered is that that is actually not the case.
Basia: Got it. And just for the, I guess the less tax-savvy among us, can you just give me a really brief primer on what exactly corporation tax is – as opposed to tax on Ratcliffe’s personal wealth?
Alexi: Yeah, sure. So corporation tax is kind of like an income tax for companies.
So if you’re a limited company in Britain, you’ll pay 19 per cent of tax on any profits you make. So that sounds quite simple and it is, if you’re just a British company. Where it becomes really complicated is if you’re a British company with loads of subsidiaries operating abroad.
So Marcus Leroux and SourceMaterial investigated how much UK tax Ineos has been paying after it moved back to Britain from Switzerland.
These are figures that we’re reporting for the first time. Ineos is secretive, and has a complicated structure. But Marcus has been able to glean the real story.
And the number Marcus has come to, for the year 2019, is about £67 million to the Treasury – that’s a tiny fraction of a profit of $6 billion (about £4.3 billion) before interest payments, tax and other charges are deducted. It’s pretty staggering.
So how did they do it? Well essentially, it boils down to this: they’re booking profits outside of the UK, in low-tax places like Switzerland, even though their headquarters are here, in the UK…
Marcus: It’s worth bearing in mind that the company at the top of the corporate pyramid is in the Isle of Man. So you don’t get to see the accounts, the company below that is in Switzerland. So, again, you don’t get to see the accounts. But what we can glean from all of the companies leading up to those key parent companies suggests that the UK is commanding an even smaller share of the Ineos tax pie than it was during the Swiss tax-exile years.
One way they’re doing this is through patents. They’re registering patents in Switzerland.
Marcus: Why is that important? It’s important because patent applications are one of the ways that you can justify recognising profit in one jurisdiction versus another.
And the other way they’ve kept their corporate tax bill low, is through people.
Marcus focused on one subsidiary – that’s basically a smaller company within a bigger company. And it’s called Styrolution – it makes polystyrene and light weight plastic, like the stuff used in Lego bricks.
[Clip: Styrolution promotional video]
Marcus: When we looked at Styrolution, this $6 billion subsidiary – so it’s a big business in its own right – we noticed this sort of curious discrepancy in its accounts. Most of its profits in the last couple of years have been produced by its Swiss subsidiary. It has offices all over the world, and a lot of production in Belgium and Germany, but most of its profits were being generated in Switzerland. I naturally assumed that there would be a sizeable presence in Switzerland. So I turned to LinkedIn. Of the several thousand Styrolution employees with LinkedIn accounts I found 12 based in Switzerland. These 12 guys either are complete hot shots who are generating millions of euros in profit each, or there’s some interesting profit shifting going on.
So Styrolution has more than €404 million worth of profits, booked in Switzerland. Yet there only appears to be a vanishingly small proportion of its workforce who are based there.
Again, I wanted to ask Alexi – what should have been happening here.
Alexi: So Styrolution is really interesting because it is a kind of representative example of why corporation tax, as it’s currently structured, doesn’t really work.
So corporation tax was designed by national governments and it was developed at a time when the cross border flows of goods and services and digital information was much less important than it is today. And what it has allowed multinationals to do, this national system of corporation tax, is to kind of leverage one system against another. And to shift profits from one jurisdiction, with high taxes, to another jurisdiction, with low taxes. And this appears to be what Ineos have done with this big subsidiary.
Marcus has worked out that despite the subsidiary only having 12 employees registered on LinkedIn in Switzerland, a low tax jurisdiction, more than 60 per cent of the subsidiary’s profits were registered in Switzerland. So I guess the point that he’s trying to make is that either these 12 employees were the most profitable employees that have ever been seen in, in, in the corporate world, or there’s some element of profit shifting going on.
Now, this is completely legal, lots of multinationals do it. But it’s representative of why lots of people think that the global system of corporation tax doesn’t really work at the moment. That, that it needs reforming in order to prevent these companies from just shifting profits around.
And here’s the real kicker.
Marcus: Indeed as a proportion of the overall tax that we know about, it actually fell after the return to the UK, compared with the Swiss tax exile years. So when I tallied it up, between 2011 and 2015, about 22 per cent – or a bit more than a fifth – of total tax was being paid in the UK when they were tax domiciled in Switzerland. But in the years since then – 2017, 2018, 2019 – it works out at below an eighth. So it’s gone from about 22 per cent to 11, 12 per cent. So if anything you could argue that they’re paying a smaller share of their tax to the UK.
So when Marcus tallied it up he found that from 2011 to 2015, about 22 per cent of all the tax Ineos paid was being paid in the UK.
But then, after they returned to the UK – so we’re looking at 2017 to 2019 now – that seems to have gone down to 13 per cent.
So just to be clear, since Ineos re-headquartered in the UK with all that flag-waving, they’re paying a lower proportion of their overall tax here.
And there’s more…
We’ve also discovered that it wasn’t just Ineos’s corporate tax bill which remained low after that celebrated move back to London.
Jim Ratcliffe’s personal fortune is now estimated to top £19 billion. In 2018 he topped the Sunday Times Rich List.
Marcus: The chronology that we have, that’s been given to me by an acquaintance of Ratcliffe, is that in May of 2017, he went to take in the Monaco Grand Prix and anchored his superyacht, the Hampshire II just off Monaco. But there was a dual purpose. He was also there to scout out properties. This is May 2017. So it’s about six months after this red, white and blue flag-waving return to the UK – as marked by their lavish party in Knightsbridge, which they held under the slogan “Back in Britain”, a sort of pun for “Back in Britain” but also “Backing Britain”. But within months he was off looking for properties in Monaco.
We’ve gone through yacht spotting websites and noticed that from 2018 onwards his yacht for the first time is spotted frequently in Monaco’s Port Hercule. And in early 2018 an Ineos entity is registered in Monaco. By 2019, we have documentary proof that he was residing in Monaco and receiving money to Monaco-linked… $500 million I think this is the number… receiving $500 million to a Monaco-linked bank account. And interestingly around that time he also denies that he’s resident in Monaco.
Now as somebody with understanding of his tax status, uh, there are two places in life that you can be guaranteed to be telling the truth. One is in, in a courtroom and the other is in an SEC filing – the Securities and Exchange Commission. So you don’t lie to American financial authorities if you know what’s good for you. And so he said in a British newspaper interview “I don’t live in Monaco”, but at the same time he was telling the SEC that he did indeed live in Monaco.
So while he was publicly announcing his faith and investment in Britain, privately he was… seemingly setting himself up as a tax exile.
Monaco is, of course as you’ll know, the home of the rich and powerful who want to avoid paying tax on their personal income. Other notable residents there? Sir Lewis Hamilton (that knighthood caused a fuss, too, by the way)…
But it seemed like Jim Ratcliffe didn’t want people to know of his Monaco plans.… He told the Express newspaper in May of 2019 that he didn’t live in Monaco. But just a couple of months before he had told the US Securities and Exchange Commision – one of the most respected and feared US government bodies – that he did in fact live there. He gave his “principal business address” as Ineos’s Monaco office, which is apparently… in a beautiful residential block called Le Splendido…
Now, the effect of the offshoring – which is perfectly legal – could be really profound for Jim Ratcliffe – it could allow this Knight of the British realm to accept billions of pounds in future Ineos profit completely tax free.
By Marcus’s calculations, residency in Monaco could save Ratcliffe and his shareholders more than €600 million in tax. And that is, shall we say, a conservative estimate.
Now here in the UK we know that tax avoidance is a really emotional issue. We’re obsessed with class, and when we find out that the rich and famous are aggressively avoiding tax, which isn’t – to be clear – illegal, it does scratch at something moral.
Amid all this – his triumphant return to the UK that turns out not to be quite so clear cut, his warm words for Brexit, his quiet relocation to Monaco – came, of course, the cherry on top.
Jim Ratcliffe was awarded a knighthood. A knighthood! A huge honour. For services to British business and investment.
And to get a knighthood, there are some rules. Citizens who base themselves offshore are normally not permitted to receive honours.
Basia: Alexi in, in normal times and in, kind of, normal procedure, how does somebody usually get greenlit to get an honor?
Alexi: So the honour system is a really interesting process because not many people know about it and it kind of goes on in the shadows. But what we can tell you about it is that it takes about 18 months to two years to go from being nominated for an honour to actually receiving one. And what happens is this: you get nominated, your name goes up to the government department responsible. They, if they agree, pass your name down to a particular committee made up of experts in the area, other famous people, civil servants, and the committee will specialise in the area that you also specialise in. So if you’re a sportsman like Andy Murray, your name will be considered by a sports subcommittee. And if you’re a businessman like Jim Ratcliffe, then your name will be considered by an economic subcommittee. And these subcommittees will vet you and they will discuss, you know, your achievements and whether you’re deserving.
And if you are, they’ll put your name forward to the government and to The Queen. And then The Queen, as the fount of all honour, will give you your knighthood or your CBE or whatever. But within that vetting period of 18 months to two years… HMRC, the revenue, gets involved and they will run the names of the nominees through their confidential computer systems. And they will be able to tell the subcommittee members whether the nominees are dodgy or not, you know. And they use a traffic light system to do so. So if you’ve got, if you are green, then your tax affairs are kind of completely in order. If you’re amber, then there’s something potentially to watch out for. And if you’re red, it means pretty much that you’ve engaged in an aggressive or controversial tax avoidance scheme. And again, by the way, all of this is legal. Okay I mean, this isn’t tax evasion at all – this is just tax avoidance – and it’s designed to avoid bringing the system of honours into disrepute. So since 2018, when the system was discovered, we’ve known that sports stars, for instance, like Wayne Rooney who have invested in legal tax avoidance schemes may have been blocked from receiving honours because of this traffic light system.
But we’ve discovered that Jim Ratcliffe’s plan to move to Monaco, which only became public after he was knighted in June 2018, was set in motion well before that date.
In fact, Marcus has talked to someone close to the Honours Committee, who said, the whole saga – when they discovered what was happening – left many of them feeling stunned and angry.
Marcus: Now, interestingly, I understand that Ratcliffe’s return to tax exile has led to a change in the rules in the honours system. So they’ve inserted what my source close to the Honours Committee described as a Ratcliffe clause. So that if you collect a knighthood and take your fortune offshore to say, Monaco or Switzerland, the Forfeiture Committee have reserved the right to ask for their knighthood back.
Alexi: Even on a generous reading of what Ratcliffe has done… he did move to Monaco quite soon after he got given a knighthood. And our sources in the Honours Committee, or close to the Honours Committee, have told us, or have told Marcus, that this has made them incredibly angry. That basically Ratcliffe got a knighthood when he was based in the UK and then very soon after that went to Monaco.
Now, in addition to that, Marcus has discovered that the situation might be even more controversial. Ratcliffe might have had plans to move to Monaco not only after the knighthood was given to him, but even before the knighthood was given to him. So at the time that the Honours Committee was considering his nomination, that 18 to 24 month period that I mentioned before, there’s evidence that he was thinking at that time of going to Monaco.
And to be honest, if the Honours Committee had known about that, they would never have given him the award.
Basia: And is there a chance that they might strip him of his knighthood? It’s happened to other people before.
Alexi: I think, to be honest, the chances of that are quite low. What we’re hearing is that this Ratcliffe clause won’t have any retrospective application, it will just apply to people going forward.
The Jim Ratcliffe return story is not what it seems. We can say that.
And remember the Ineos Grenadier? That rugged heir to the Land Rover Defender… The car that could bring thousands of jobs to Britain… The new icon of British manufacturing?
Well, late last year it was announced… it’s going to be built in France.
Marcus: I don’t think that they genuinely meant to lead anybody down the garden path with where they were intending to build the Grenadier. And, of course, the notion that Jim Ratcliffe is a personal advocate who believes passionately in British manufacturing… is somewhat undercut by the fact that is his modus operandi, his playbook, is to take unloved assets and yes, try to breathe life into them. But a large part of that is in trying to make sure that you get the requisite support from the government to do so, including, for example, being given a bit of leeway on environmental regulations in some cases.
Bridgend in that sense was conforming to a broader pattern, that he had negotiations with the Welsh government, but got a better offer from elsewhere, for a fleet-footed multinational company with a mercurial billionaire owner.
You know, even if they are genuinely patriotic, they’re not a charity in that you have to take the attestations of their pride in being British with a pinch of salt.
Of course, we asked Ineos about all of this. And they told us: “Ineos is a large business with entities in many geographies and jurisdictions. It is legally compliant everywhere it trades and it pays all taxes due. Ineos does not comment on the personal affairs of its owners.”
And so ends our tale.
It is, as you can see, a story of a particular kind of cynical patriotism. A tale where a big businessman, battered by the press, found a narrative in Brexit to suit his interests, and exploited it.
Follow the money, that’s the famous line, isn’t it, from the Watergate film. Well, it stays true. The real story, it turns out, is always in the detail.