The mystery swagman who raised pounds 15m for Tory party

The existence of a pounds 15m Tory fund-raiser was denied by William Hague's office last night. With sleaze charges high on the agenda at Westminste r, Anthony Bevins, Political Editor, reports on the mystery of the Australian `swagman'.
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The Independent Online
The leader of the Conservative Party has submitted the name of Ronald J Walker, a prominent Melbourne businessman, to the Prime Minister for a knighthood, The Independent has been told.

Authoritative sources have revealed that Mr Walker served as the Tories' overseas treasurer before the last election, and that he delivered foreign funds to the tune of at least pounds 15m for John Major's 1997 election campaign.

A spokesman for Mr Hague's office yesterday insisted that Mr Walker had not been a Tory overseas treasurer, "within living memory". But Mr Walker's name appears as one of a number of honorary party treasurers on letter heading of the "Conservative and Unionist Central Office Treasurers' Department", used last year.

The Independent has been told Mr Walker's name was submitted to Mr Blair for a knighthood, along with that of Bernie Ecclestone, the Formula One motor racing chief who remains at the centre of a row over contributions to the Labour Party.

Following advice given to Labour by Sir Patrick Neill QC, the new chairman of the official Committee on Standards in Public Life, Labour is being forced to return a pounds 1m donation from Mr Ecclestone, because of a ministerial decision to exempt Formula One from a ban on tobacco sponsorship in sport.

But The Independent has been authoritatively informed that Mr Ecclestone gave about pounds 10m to the Conservatives, along with a loan of pounds 4m, and those gifts are certain now to become a focus of attention for the Neill inquiry into party funding.

It is not known whether some of the Ecclestone donations were raised by Mr Walker, but it was Mr Walker who negotiated the multi-million pound deal under which Mr Ecclestone agreed, in December 1993, to switch the Australian Grand Prix from Adelaide to Melbourne from this year.

The political significance of the allegations linking Mr Walker, the Tory party, overseas funding, Mr Hague and Mr Ecclestone will not be lost on a beleaguered Labour leadership.

Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, yesterday wrote to Mr Hague to ask: "Are press reports accurate that Bernie Ecclestone made donations and loans to the Conservative Party, and, in which case, what were the amounts and dates?" He also asked: "How much money have you received from abroad to fund election campaigns?"

Mr Hague replied last night: "Your attempt to divert attention away from the Government's decision to treat Formula One in a completely different way from other national sports ... is pathetic."

He also told the Home Secretary: "Before the summer, I instructed our party treasurers that ... we will not accept foreign donations."

Mr Hague said in July: "We will publish new guidance later this year, and our intention is that in future years the Conservative Party will no longer accept foreign donations." His spokesman was unable to say last night when foreign donations would be stopped - although the Government is to make them illegal from next year.

It was disclosed yesterday that Sir Patrick had been asked by Tom Sawyer, Labour general secretary, to rule on the acceptability of a further, post- election donation from Mr Ecclestone.

The Prime Minister raised the issue in yesterday's Cabinet, during which a number of ministers said it was "ridiculous" that business donations should be questioned in this way - when all Government decisions regularly affected business in general and in particular. The No 10 spokesman said: "We get it in the neck for taking money, we get it in the neck for giving it back, and now we're getting it in the neck for not taking money."

Tobacco row, page 5