I retract nothing on Mr Ashcroft

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The Independent Culture
SINCE I made my speech in the Commons last Wednesday raising quite legitimate concerns about Michael Ashcroft's role as Conservative Party treasurer and funder, I have been accused of many things.

My critics have claimed that The Times put me up to it: they did not. That the paper wrote my speech: in fact I wrote it in the Chamber. That I was acting for No 10 or for Millbank Tower: I was not. That I am part of a global conspiracy to bring Mr Ashcroft down and damage the Conservative Party by smear and innuendo: that is not the case.

This is not an issue of drug-running or money laundering. I have never suggested that Mr Ashcroft is involved in either. It is about standards in public life, the transparency of party funding, and the electorate's confidence in our political system.

I spent 10 long years on Westminster City Council, much of it engaged in hand-to-hand combat with Shirley Porter and her cohorts. It was a high profile and often exciting place to be, and I do not regret the role I played in the campaign against the Tories excuses there.

When I entered Parliament as a Government Backbencher I had hoped for a calmer, more reasonable political atmosphere and the opportunity to concentrate on the needs of my Wrekin constituents.

But back in March - three months before The Times started taking an interest - a respected friend dropped a bundle of papers on my desk. They were about Michael Ashcroft. I did not really want to get involved. But even from a cursory reading, it was clear that, in taking his money and making him party treasurer, the Conservatives were in breach of their own unequivocal commitment to the Neill Committee that "we will not accept foreign donations".

So on 10 April, I wrote to William Hague and asked politely how he squared the principle he expounded to Neill with the practice of his relationship with Ashcroft. I pointed out that Mr Ashcroft has been a UK tax exile since 1984; that his principle home is in Florida; that his main business interests lie in Belize where he owns a major bank; that he funds the left-leaning People's United Party in Belize as well as the Tories in the UK; that he is a Belize national and, as that country's ambassador to the UN, the agent of a foreign government.

But Mr Hague's response to my letter was derisory. His party chairman wrote to assure me that "the matters to which you refer, in relation to donations, are fully consistent with our stated rules". All attempts to discover just what those rules are have been summarily rebuffed, and, since they apparently provide the justification for the Tories' links with Mr Ashcroft, that is rather odd.

I thought long and hard about the speech I made on Wednesday. But given Mr Hague's determination to brazen out the Ashcroft affair, I took the view that it was right to raise the stakes by airing issues which I believe of public importance, even if the Tories do not want to hear them.

It is no secret that, before I made my speech, I contacted The Times and asked if they had papers about the existence and content of which I had long been aware. I was right to ask, and The Times was right to show me. I would not have spoken on the basis of hearsay. In the event I spoke on the basis of evidence.

I knew the Tories would huff and puff about Parliamentary privilege. But privilege is an essential feature of our democracy. It gives MPs the right to raise various issues in the public interest without fear or favour. It is upheld when MPs believe, as I did, that what they are saying is true. It is abused when MPs know that what they are saying is false - as has been the case with those Tories who have since used it to try to smear my name. However, the questions I put to Mr Hague on 10 April still remain. The Tories have twisted and turned, blanket denial following denial, then giving way to black propaganda - about a "Labour Minister" seeking to persuade Ashcroft to change sides; about the US State Department giving Mr Ashcroft a clean bill of health - when it has not.

It all amounts to a rather wispy smoke screen. Still the questions go unanswered - and more and more Conservatives are now asking them. Tory MPs cut me dead in the corridors, but ironically I find that I am speaking for a great many of them who dare not say publicly what they are privately telling journalists.

Now Mr Ashcroft has issued his writ [against The Times], he has ensured, as did Jonathan Aitken earlier, that this story will run and run. I doubt it will end happily for the Tory Party. Mr Hague has foolishly handcuffed his reputation to Mr Ashcroft's. That is why he has no choice but to stand by him. But that is also why they will ultimately swim or sink together. For my part, I would rather be in The Wrekin.