Leading Article: Mr Hague should cool his ardour for his party treasurer

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The Independent Culture
IT IS not difficult to guess what attracted William Hague, a man who inherited a bankrupt party, to the Tories' treasurer, the billionaire businessman Michael Ashcroft. It is more tricky to see what Mr Ashcroft saw in Mr Hague. Perhaps it was Mr Ashcroft's liking for a long shot; as Steven Norris, the former Tory minister, once said: "He's like the guy who backs Jamaica in the World Cup." Perhaps it was the prospect of a peerage, although he was refused one in the Queen's birthday honours on the advice of the all-party Scrutiny Committee. Or perhaps it was the impulse to add another trinket to his eclectic collection, which currently includes, among other things, a London taxi, Victoria Crosses and a slice of the Belize economy. He has not exactly acquired the Tory Party. But he has been keeping it afloat, to the tune of pounds 2m.

Mr Hague might have thought himself lucky to find such a wealthy and generous benefactor. However, our recent revelations about Mr Ashcroft may well have left Mr Hague wondering whether his relationship with Mr Ashcroft was a match made in heaven. We know now of the remarks made by British diplomats in 1996 about Mr Ashcroft's activities that he has "shadows over his reputation which ought not to be ignored". By last night there was also growing evidence that the Major government may have intervened on Mr Ashcroft's behalf with the Belize government. It does not look good, to put it mildly.

There may be nothing improper about Mr Ashcroft or his relationship with the Conservative Party. But it certainly fails the Mandelson test - that you should not only do the right thing, but clearly be seen to do the right thing. Mr Hague's party is only just emerging from the "sleaze era". Just when the ugly scandals in the final days of the Tories' administration are fading from the public memory, Mr Hague gets into bed with a man whose vast wealth and colourful business past could revive that damaging reputation.

The root of much political evil is, of course, money. The biggest single factor that drives political parties headlong into the arms of rich suitors is the frenzy of spending at each general election. This is why the report last autumn by Lord Neill into the whole question of party funding should now be pursued as soon as possible. A pounds 20m cap on national party spending was suggested by Lord Neill. That would not stop Michael Ashcroft or Bernie Ecclestone giving huge sums to the Tories or Labour respectively. But it would start to cool the ardour of a desperate party leader. In the meantime, Mr Hague should activate his own party's Ethics and Integrity Committee. Mr Hague must remove even the slightest trace of sleaze from his party's image. It may need a divorce from Mr Ashcroft to secure that objective.

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