Sunday, March 07, 2010

Queen and Tony Blair dragged into Michael Ashcroft peerage row.

The Ashcroft affair is now widening with friends of Tony Blair making it clear that he feels that he was misled over the affair, which has led the Lib Dems to question whether or not the Queen gave Ashcroft his life peerage "under false pretences".

In a letter to O'Donnell, the Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman, Lord Oakeshott, said that, given the "overwhelming public interest" in how the Tories' biggest donor came to be elevated to the Lords, it was vital "to establish whether the Queen conferred a life peerage… under false pretences".

The monarch confers honours mostly on the advice of the Cabinet Office and the prime minister. Ashcroft's declaration last week that he was a "non-dom" has been seen to contradict "clear and unequivocal" assurances given to the then Tory leader, William Hague, that he would take up permanent residence in the UK before the end of 2000. This assurance was seen as crucial. Members of Blair's inner circle suggest the former prime minister now feels he has been misled.

"Hague told Tony that Ashcroft would pay huge amounts of tax," said a source. "That was the deal. That was what we all understood at the time."

But following discussions between the then Tory chief whip, James Arbuthnot, and Sir Hayden Phillips, head of the Crown Office, who signed off the peerage, Ashcroft claims it was agreed he would only become a "long-term resident of the UK", which would allow him to keep his non-dom status.

In a highly unusual move, the foreign secretary, David Miliband, waded into the row yesterday, questioning whether Hague was aware that Ashcroft had agreed only to become a long-term resident. Miliband asked: "Did he know then that change could allow Ashcroft to avoid 'tens of millions a year in tax'? And if he didn't know then, then surely he now feels misled by Ashcroft?"

Sources close to Blair told the Observer that, in the years after Ashcroft received his peerage, No 10 received regular demands to clarify Ashcroft's tax status, particularly from Labour MPs. When asked to clarify the issue, Ashcroft declined. "He refused to co-operate and was very aggressive about it," said one official.
It is clear that Blair and his aides feel as if they were misled, which they clearly were, and it is clear that Hague was also misled, and that he gave his word as Tory party leader only for Ashcroft to render the word of the Tory party leader to be utterly meaningless.

That ought to be a big deal to the current Tory party leader, but he appears to be so keen to hang on to Ashcroft's financial backing - until he gets elected - that he is unwilling to do what is right immediately.

Cameron has said that Ashcroft will stand down as Deputy Leader of the Tories after the next election, but if Ashcroft has to go over this matter then he has to go, hanging on to him until after the election only looks as if Cameron needs his money too much to do what is right now.

And, as Ashcroft has rendered the word of the Tory leader as less than useless, what guarantee is there that he will step down after the election?

That's the part of all of this which I find hardest to understand. Cameron and Hague should be outraged at the fact that Ashcroft has made the word of the Tory leader almost meaningless, but they don't seem to get that. Hague gave cast iron guarantees, and he gave them as Leader of the Opposition, which was thought to have made them written in stone. Ashcroft tore them up and changed the deal once he got what he wanted. The Tories don't appear to be outraged by that.

Indeed, the very fact that they are promising to remove him - after the election - implies that they don't understand the damage which this man has done to the word of the Tory leader. Why should anyone believe them? Ashcroft promised to pay "tens of millions" in taxes as long as he got what he wanted, then he rescinded. What's to guarantee that the Tories wouldn't find a new reason to keep him in place once elected?

Cameron is now, rather pathetically, attempting to claim the fact that this information is now in the public domain is down to him:

A spokesman for Cameron last night returned fire on Labour and the Lib Dems, insisting that there was "no difference" between their non-dom donors, such as Labour's Lord Paul, and Lord Ashcroft. She said the Tory leader had not received the credit he deserved for extracting a public statement about his tax status from the peer after 10 years of secrecy.

That's pathetic. Ashcroft's tax status was revealed as a result of the Freedom of Information Act, it had absolutely nothing to do with David Cameron, and he is clearly clutching at straws to now pretend that it was.

With each day that passes this affair weakens David Cameron. He is seen as incapable of doing what needs to be done and asking for credit for things which he had nothing to do with.

He has his head firmly stuck in the sand, insisting that Lord Paul's non-dom status renders the entire Ashcroft affair meaningless. I don't think Lord Paul should be able to sit in the Lords as a non-dom, but I know of no assurances that Lord Paul would pay "tens of millions" to the treasury once he was elevated to the Lords, and certainly no assurance which came from the leader of one of our main political parties.

That's the part of this which Cameron is missing. The word of the person who holds his office ought to count for something. Ashcroft has undone that. I am stunned that Cameron can't see that.

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