Tory chief's latest gamble: helping the disabled bet

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The Independent Online

* On the Conservative front bench, few cats are fatter than David Cameron's party chairman and chief strategist, Francis Maude.

The Tory "fixer" held no fewer than eight directorships, together with an advisory job at Barclays, at the time of his last entry in the Register of Members' Interests.

He's about to discover the cost of such diligent money-making, though. For a new, ninth directorship leaves Maude accused of one of the foremost political sins of our time: double standards.

A few months back, it was announced that the Tory chairman had joined a little-known technology firm called UTEK.

At the time, few people cared. But it has since emerged that one of UTEK's principal products is computer software helping disabled people to gamble.

The company aims to help them access betting websites by "making equipment more user-friendly for individuals who cannot see, read, reach the screen or make fine movements with arms, hands or fingers".

Since the Tories have only just launched an attack on Labour's "reckless encouragement" of betting, opponents are now hollering about pots and kettles.

For now, Maude is resisting criticism of his new job, though.

"I don't think it's inappropriate at all," he says. "There is a Disability Discrimination Act in force which requires people to remove barriers to disabled people from taking part in everyday activities."

* The campaign to stop Carol Vorderman starring in adverts for loan companies is warming up a treat.

Yesterday, the TV financial expert Martin Lewis, together with two debt charities, launched a petition urging the Countdown hostess to quit her lucrative contract with the credit firm FirstPlus.

They seem to have touched a nerve. At 4pm, Vorderman's agent, John Miles, circulated a stern statement, saying she was now speaking to lawyers.

The press release also accused Lewis of hypocrisy, since his own internet site - which offers financial advice - gets occasional payments from loan firms.

All of which has left Lewis spitting feathers. "I am outraged," he says. "This is a clear attempt to deflect attention away from Carol.

"I'm happy to debate this with her, in public or private. But I won't be bullied into silence by these threats."

* Kevin Spacey's day job ought to involve sorting out the mess he's created as the artistic director of the Old Vic.

Strange, then, to find Spacey jetting off to the States to host next week's episode of the NBC show Saturday Night Live.

Colleagues are gobsmacked. "The Old Vic is sitting empty for five months," says one. "Frankly, Kevin ought to be here, at the helm, trying to fill it. Mind you, his film Superman Returns comes out in eight weeks, so it'll be the first of many prolonged absences. It's a further sign of meltdown, I'm afraid."

Despite the back-biting, Spacey's spokesman continues to insist everything's going swimmingly.

"Sometimes people take a day away from the office," I'm told. "When this is the case, Kevin Spacey remains in day-to-day contact with the Old Vic theatre."

* It looks like only a matter of time until David Cameron un- veils his own version of Alastair Campbell.

The Westminster rumour-mill suggests that Nick Pisani, the urbane editor of Question Time, has been sounded out for the job.

Although the man himself wasn't returning calls yesterday, Pisani isn't the only prominent hack linked with a move to Tory HQ.

Earlier this week, Trevor Kavanagh, The Sun's political supremo, was also tipped as a potential Tory press supremo.

Quite where all this speculation leaves Cameron's current press officer, the likeable George Eustace, is anyone's guess.

* The Vogue supremo Nicholas Coleridge devotes much of his time and boundless energy to the art of making friends and influencing people.

Last night, several hundred beautiful folk were invited to quaff champagne at the launch of his new novel, A Much Married Man.

Not everyone was in thrall to Coleridge's tireless networking, though. A list of RSVPs, obtained by Pandora, reveals that several red carpets-worth of "A-Listers" had better things to do.

They include, among others, Liz Hurley, Tessa Dahl, Julian Fellowes, Jilly Cooper, Lisa B, Nick Rhodes, Lord and Lady Saatchi, Timothy and Lady Helen Taylor, Sir Martin Sorrell and Peter Bazalgette.

Even party perennial Nicky Haslam was unable to make it. "Rejection letters from Nicky are as rare as hen's teeth, but we got one," grumbles an organiser.

pandora@independent.co.uk

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