ASHCROFT AFFAIR: Labour challenged to `put up or shut up' on Ashcroft

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The Independent Online
WILLIAM HAGUE challenged Labour to "put up or shut up" last night after Michael Ashcroft, the beleaguered Conservative Party treasurer, announced he was to sue The Times. Mr Hague made clear that Mr Ashcroft would stay in his job during his legal battle.

At the weekly meeting of Tory MPs at Westminster, Mr Hague sought to calm growing anxiety in his party over the damaging spate of stories about its biggest financial backer.

He told the meeting: "I am not going to allow people to be driven from positions in the party by smear and innuendo." He also hit back at Labour MPs who have used the protection of Commons privilege, which prevents them being sued, to attack Mr Ashcroft's business dealings in Belize."We will now see whether Labour MPs have the courage to say outside the House what they have had the cowardice to say inside," he said.

He held a meeting over breakfast with Mr Ashcroft on Tuesday but Tory officials insisted that he had put no pressure on his treasurer to take legal action. "The decision was a matter for Mr Ashcroft," said Mr Hague's spokesman.

Tory MPs welcomed the legal action last night. Some expressed the hope that it would stem the tide of press reports about the treasurer, who has personally given pounds 3m to the party in recent years.

However, some senior Tories remain nervous about Mr Hague's strong backing for Mr Ashcroft. They fear that the publicity will scupper the party's attempts to dispel the image of "Tory sleaze" that dogged John Major's government. "The lesson from those years is that if you are going to resign, you should go quickly to avoid damaging the party," one Tory MP said last night. "If he eventually has to go, it will look terrible."

Another MP said: "It doesn't matter whether you are innocent or guilty. When these kind of allegations are made, it is best to go. Anyone with business dealings in Belize is bound to have skeletons in their cupboard."

A party spokesman said after Mr Bradley's Commons remarks: "The US State Department has confirmed there is no information linking Michael Ashcroft and money-laundering, nor has it ever raised any concerns with the British or Belizian governments. Nobody from the Drug Enforcement Administration has ever made an attempt to contact Michael Ashcroft."

The spokesman drew attention to Mr Ashcroft's statement last week when he said: "I have never been involved in drug trafficking or money-laundering. My business affairs are entirely proper and no amount of smear, rumour, or innuendo will alter that fact."