The Conservative Party yesterday moved quickly to defuse the Sun's accusation by launching an immediate inquiry, and then, only hours later, issuing a denial that any Cabinet member had had a hand in it. The Sun countered: 'We have told the truth. Our informant is lying. He knows it. And he knows we know it.'
The allegation that a minister had been prepared to engage in sex smears against an opponent sparked a furore, following the controversy surrounding what ministers have called press intrusion over David Mellor's alleged affair with an actress.
But a Tory smear conspiracy had been revealed to the Independent by a well- placed former cabinet minister in March. The same source also astonished a Conservative MP from a highly marginal constituency by reassuring him, before Parliament broke up, that if a Tory defeat was threatened in early April the smear plan would be brought into operation.
The idea was that allegations about Mr Ashdown's private life would be published in a German or American newspaper in an attempt to force him into seeking an injunction to prevent British newspapers repeating the smear.
Such an injunction, it was hoped, would open the way for the Tory press to condemn the 'gagging writ', citing press freedom, and offer a possible escape route from costly libel actions.
In the event, no foreign newspaper published the allegations, but Kelvin MacKenzie, editor of the Sun, said yesterday that a 'prominent member of the Cabinet' called his office during the election to identify women the unidentified minister claimed, falsely, 'had been having affairs with Mr Ashdown'.
John Smith, the Labour leader, said the allegation raised fundamental questions about 'probity and principle in public life', and he said if the man was still in office, he should resign or be sacked.
Mr Ashdown said he was not going to comment 'on rumours about rumours', but a party spokesman said: 'If these allegations are true, then it is an extremely serious matter concerning the conduct of someone who holds government office.'
Conservative Central Office issued a statement last night saying that every member of the Cabinet had denied giving the Sun, or any other newspaper, the names of women alleged to have had affairs with Mr Ashdown. 'Indeed, every member of the Cabinet denies the allegation and would deplore such action.'
A former party chairman, Lord Tebbit, said earlier that Mr MacKenzie might have misunderstood the election-time conversation - although the pro-Tory editor had specifically alleged that the cabinet minister who approached him had provided the names, addresses, and telephone numbers of five women.
Lord Tebbit told BBC radio's The World at One: 'We all knew that there were rumours running around, and the commonplace was that there was a sort of truce, and that nobody was going to throw the first brick because there were too many people living in glass houses.'
A Daily Mirror executive told the Independent during the election that if, as feared, the Tory press ran smears against senior Labour politicians, Mirror Group papers would retaliate in kind against senior, identified Tories.
Ministers maintain constant contact with editors of papers like the Sun, Daily Express, and Daily Mail, and that activity becomes frenetic during elections. Mr MacKenzie's rare disclosure of a conversation with the cabinet minister was prompted by the government threat of legislation on privacy. He told BBC radio on Monday: 'Here, on the one hand, we have Number 10 demanding privacy and, on the other hand, members of the Cabinet trying to drop Paddy Ashdown in it.'
David Hill, Labour's communications director, said Mr MacKenzie was indulging in an 'unsubtle form of blackmail - the message from the Sun is, 'Don't touch us because you can't afford to'.'
Last night, Mr MacKenzie told BBC TV's Nine O'Clock News he had simply been seeking to expose the 'humbug' of politicians, and would never name the cabinet minister: 'There's no question of blackmail, we're just fighting our corner.'
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