To anyone outside Westminster, it looks like just another media storm in a latte: Observer journalist resigns from political website after millionaire Tory donor takes over.
But when Andrew Rawnsley quit Politics Home last week, it was the latest sign of unease at the growing influence of the Conservative Party's deputy chairman. Lord Ashcroft is now marching ahead with plans to build his own media empire, concentrating on the kind of social media platforms used so effectively by Barack Obama in the US presidential election.
A deal was struck last weekend between Lord Ashcroft and the proprietors of two major political websites, Conservative Home and Politics Home, which sees him take a 57.5 per cent stake in a new parent company over both. Tim Montgomerie, the owner of Conservative Home, revealed plans for the creation of a third website, which will "look like an online British newspaper but where the content is provided by bloggers rather than conventionally paid journalists".
But the cause of last week's controversy was the sale of Politics Home, a supposedly neutral site founded 18 months ago by Stephan Shakespeare, the wealthy founder of polling firm YouGov. One of its chief selling points has been the Phi100 panel, a group of 100 influential figures from across the political spectrum polled in a daily email on issues of the day. Following last weekend's announcement, more than 30 members of the panel have resigned, claiming Lord Ashcroft's ownership would compromise the independence of the site and their reputations.
Martin Bright, former political editor of the New Statesman, was one of them: "When it was first set up, I was charged with persuading important people from the left to get involved, assuring them it would be completely independent. It became a thing of rare beauty. Now they've pissed it up the wall."
Shakespeare rejects suggestions that the site will cease to be neutral. "There is zero point in the site if it doesn't provide absolutely impartial coverage," he says. "There will be no discernible change, as you will see. It will speak for itself."
Some bloggers have questioned the wisdom of Rawnsley and others in quitting before the direction of Politics Home has become clear. But the greatest concern is for the independence and plurality of the blogosphere. Until now, political social media websites have been owned by journalists and entrepreneurs. Now, the deputy chairman of the Conservatives has assumed a controlling stake in two of the most-read sites, with an election no more than nine months away.
Lord Ashcroft's investment in new media is causing palpable unease to the Conservative leadership. Ashcroft has so far avoided declaring his tax status but he is believed to be a non-domiciled resident of Belize. After pressure from Labour backbenchers, a late clause was added to the Political Parties and Elections Act this summer, meaning Ashcroft will now have to clarify his tax status, for which he has been set a deadline of January.
Ashcroft is one of the Conservative Party's most generous donors, but his unresolved tax status continues to be an embarrassment. Yet his acquisition of influential political websites makes him useful to the party. "If the Tories had been hoping to sideline Ashcroft, they certainly can't afford to now," says one party insider.
Lord Ashcroft will not interfere editorially and has no hidden motive, Shakespeare insists. However, this newspaper understands he is planning a programme of video virals for the Conservatives in the run-up to the election and would need access to a television studio for this purpose. At 18 Doughty Street, the headquarters of Politics Home, there is a mothballed television suite, from where Shakespeare used to broadcast an internet TV station. But Mr Shakespeare denies the suggestion of any overlap with Lord Ashcroft's other projects. "There isn't any overlap of that sort."
Shakespeare says that he is chairman of the company and will have "a casting vote on a board of two." But as the majority shareholder, Lord Ashcroft will have the power to sack him. What if a conflict of interests should arise, such as a story about Lord Ashcroft's tax affairs? "Then I will behave in the natural way and the site would cover it like any other story."
In any case, Lord Ashcroft's deputy chairmanship of the party may soon cease to be an issue. According to Shakespeare, Lord Ashcroft intends to resign from his party office after the election and concentrate on his media projects. "I'm taking a long-term view," he says, " Michael is giving up his position after the election and in the long term it is excellent to have an investor like Michael".