Stop this self-pity, Mr Hague, and get rid of your treasurer

He's the kind of faintly seedy opportunist you might find in a Graham Greene novel
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MICHAEL ASHCROFT swashbuckled on to the Conservative Party's friendless horizon as a welcome white knight. He has turned into a liability who may well cost its reputation far more than the pounds 2m-plus he has donated over the last two years.

A desire has emerged to present Mr Ashcroft as a real-life Blofeld. Yet he is not so much reminiscent of Ian Fleming's omnipotent villain, as of the kind of faintly seedy opportunist we might find in the tropical miasma of Graham Greene's novels. As we now know from the revelations of this newspaper and others, he has not been the straightest of arrows. He wheedled the previous government into lobbying against a change in the Belize tax laws, which favoured his own bank.

A leaked Foreign Office memo records his threat to stir up trouble in the British dependency of the Turks and Caicos Islands if he were denied permission to found a bank there. He opposed tighter financial regulation in Belize, which was intended to cut down on drug-trafficking and money- laundering, because such stringency would hit his own companies. The Public Honours Scrutiny Committee was concerned enough about his record to turn down William Hague's request that Mr Ashcroft be offered a peerage.

None of this would matter very much were he just AN Other secretive billionaire. But as a senior official in the main British Opposition party, he deserves to undergo the scrutiny accorded to those who venture into public life.

There are times in every political party's cycle of fortunes when it has to set aside self-regard and look at itself and its conduct as outsiders do. It took New Labour a long time in the wilderness to learn this lesson, and only after it did so was it fit to regain office. This is such a time for the Conservative Party. Alas, the defensive gene runs too strongly throughout its body politic.

Conservatives are inclined to believe that they are the natural party of power and the source of political morality. When publicly challenged on alleged shortcomings in their own behaviour, they cry, "It's so unfair!" and "Why do people think we're sleazy, when Tony Blair has taken money from Bernie Ecclestone and the anti-hunting lobby?" Slathering themselves liberally with self-pity, they wonder why they are so distrusted.

Mr Hague keeps telling us that he has spent months "listening to Britain". But his defence of Mr Ashcroft suggests that he remains tone-deaf to widely held concerns about the impact of a single person contributing 10 per cent of all partydonations. So much, too, for the claim that he would not accept "any foreign money". Mr Ashcroft is domiciled in Belize and does not pay UK taxes. His money has been through so many transformations that it is now extremely difficult to attach any nationality at all to it.

On the Today programme, Mr Hague rambled about the accusations being mere "smear, innuendo and hearsay". Revolved audibly on the roasting-spit of discomfort, he resorted to heavy-handed jokes about "Buttongate" - a reference to the leaked Foreign Office memo which pointed out that Mr Ashcroft appeared to be hung over at one meeting, and was missing a cufflink button. "This is all about buttons," he thrashed. No, Mr Hague, it is not. It is about whether a senior official in your party is fit to hold that office in the face of a range of serious allegations. Note the difference.

Mr Hague then ruled out the referral of Mr Ashcroft to the Ethics and Integrity Committee, the body set up to reassure the public that Conservatives were serious about tackling sleaze. Ethics and integrity are precisely the issues that Mr Ashcroft faces. Mr Hague said that any aspersions would have to be "substantiated" before being subjected to the internal scrutiny of the party. Faced with that standard of proof, even Meyer Lansky and Vito Corleone would have found it safe to carry on without any fear of unwelcome disturbance.

By the time we got to Mr Hague praising his colleague's valuable work on behalf of Crimestoppers, we knew that he was in the last throes of desperation. The interview could have been halted on humanitarian grounds. He has never been on worse form. That tells us something.

The Conservative Party would love to get rid of Mr Ashcroft, having relieved him of a chunk of his money. They never wanted him as treasurer at all, but he insisted on the post and the incumbent, Graham Kirkham, was elbowed out of the way. For some time there has been internal disquiet about Mr Ashcroft's potential to cause scandal. He occasions fear but not respect in Central Office. Mr Hague's request that he be given a peerage was clearly a preparation to move him onwards and upwards at the first discreet opportunity.

A perplexing thing about the Tory leader is his lack of consistency. He asserts his authority one day, only to weasel out of a tough decision the next. What was the point of ousting the unfortunate Peter Lilley because the then Deputy Leader had made an ill-calculated speech about the future of public services, only to cling to a treasurer who is a guaranteed source of negative publicity for the party at the very time it needs to show that it has buried the legacy of Neil Hamilton and Jonathan Aitken? Mr Ashcroft's disrepute will damage the party's recovery far more than Mr Lilley's ideological meanderings.

As long as Mr Hague defends his treasurer, he is debarred from pursuing an important flank of attack against New Labour. Business interests are now dangerously influential with this Government. Monsanto's influence over GM foods and Bernie Ecclestone's largesse, preceding the stalling of the tobacco advertising ban, suggest that we are moving closer to the corporate state. Accountability and transparency need protection against a growing tendency to centralise and mystify power in the hands of unelected, unseen elites.

This is a natural Tory message and it has potential to be a popular one. Indeed, Mr Hague started out on such a track, but somehow lost the plot in the backwaters of family values fundamentalism and his present flirtation with the inchoate spirits of English nationalism. Hanging on to Mr Ashcroft because he is unwilling to see the press gain a scalp is both stubborn and counter-productive. Mr Ashcroft will have to go in the end; that much is clear. The longer Mr Hague delays, the greater damage will be done to the Tory comeback. He should ask his tarnished white knight to resign forthwith and, if he fails to jump, arrange for a short, sharp push from behind.

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