Politics: Blair sets challenge on party funding

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The Independent Online
William Hague yesterday came under intense pressure to expose Tory funding details - in confidence - to Sir Patrick Neill's official sleaze committee. Anthony Bevins and Colin Brown report on the Prime Minister's efforts to deflect attention from Formula One.

Tony Blair yesterday urged the Conservative leader to deliver confidential details of Tory fund-raising since 1992 to the official inquiry into party political funding to be held by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, chaired by Sir Patrick.

In Commons exchanges, Mr Hague again pressed the Prime Minister about inconsistencies in the Government line on actual and potential contributions to the Labour Party from the Formula One chief, Bernie Ecclestone.

After Mr Blair had mistakenly told Ann Widdecombe, the Tory backbencher, that Mr Ecclestone's pounds 1m donation had been sent back - when it is not expected to be returned for some days - the Tories issued a copy of the Government's own Ministerial Code of Conduct.

The code says it is of "paramount importance that ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity." But the longer-term significance of the exchanges lay in Mr Blair's repeated challenge to Mr Hague that all parties should disclose to Sir Patrick the names of donors, and amounts given over pounds 5,000, back to 1992, when fund-raising began for the 1997 election.

Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrats' leader, agreed to the principle of the request, but there is no question of Conservative agreement. Mr Hague's office has even denied the existence of one of the party's prime overseas fund-raisers, Ronald Walker, telling The Independent that he has not been an overseas treasurer of the party "in living memory".

Mr Walker, a prominent Melbourne businessman and treasurer of the Australian federal Liberal Party, appears on the letter-heading of notepaper used last year by the Conservative and Unionist Central Office Treasurers' department.

Pressure mounted last night with a Commons motion tabled by Robert Marshall- Andrews QC, Labour MP for Medway, calling on the Tory party "to make public the role and fund-raising activities of Ronald Walker on its behalf between 1992-1997." A book about the Liberal takeover of Australia, The Victory, says Mr Walker first started fund-raising for the Tories at the end of the 1980s.

"By 1995 his successful efforts led to his appointment as a [Conservative] co-treasurer, and his persuasive skills helped drive down the Tories' debt from pounds 20m in 1993 to nothing by the end of 1995," says the author, Pamela Williams.

Mr Walker, a Grand Prix colleague of Mr Ecclestone's, is said to have raised millions more for the Conservatives in the run-up to the last election, and Mr Hague nominated him for a knighthood soon after he became party leader in June.

A Commons motion tabled by Dale Campbell-Savours, Labour MP for Workington, noted that between 1990-94, Hanson Trust on behalf of Imperial Tobacco gave pounds 500,000 to the Conservative Party.

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