Kelvin MacKenzie told Radio 4's The World Tonight on Monday that the Cabinet minister called his office to offer 'names and telephone numbers, and addresses, of five women that Paddy Ashdown, he alleged, had some kind of association with. Totally untrue, by the way, in the end.'
In a front-page leading article in the Sun yesterday, Mr MacKenzie warned John Major: 'Before he accuses the press of unscrupulous behaviour, he should look closer to home.
'In the second week of the election campaign, a prominent member of the Cabinet phoned The Sun with the names and addresses of three (sic) women. He claimed they had been having affairs with Mr Ashdown. We were surprised to say the least. So we checked out the allegations and found them to be untrue.
'It was no coincidence that the smear on Mr Ashdown was planted at a time when the Tories' election campaign was at a low ebb . . . At least we came up smelling a lot sweeter than some of the Dishonourable Members.'
On 3 April, when the Tory campaign was indeed at a low ebb, the Sun carried an anonymous column by 'The Whip', under the headlines: 'A curious affair' and 'Rumours may ruin Romeo MP.'
The column said: 'Disturbing rumours reach me about one of our political figures. The stories about him are widespread: From Fleet Street to the High Court, from Whitehall to Germany.
'It is said that the man, who has a charming wife, has had affairs with five different women. The rumours have reached me from many widely differing sources . . .'
The next day, 4 April, the Independent carried a report saying: 'The first sign of a long-awaited smear campaign was published in the Sun yesterday, with a report of rumours that 'one of our political figures' had had affairs with five women.
'The person was not identified but the Independent was told by a former Cabinet minister more than a month ago that if the Tories were still running neck and neck within a week of polling day, a German magazine was expected to publish allegations about the private life of one of the Conservatives' leading opponents.
'Before Parliament was prorogued, one Conservative MP representing a highly-marginal seat told the Independent he had been reassured by a senior colleague that the threat posed by Labour and the Liberal Democrats could be diminished by scandals that would break late in the campaign.'
During March, the Independent's initial source had been asked about Tory tactics in the event of a close-run contest. He had volunteered the smear gambit, saying that the tactic would be to 'float' the allegations about Mr Ashdown in a German or American magazine or newspaper sold in the United Kingdom.
He said Mr Ashdown would then be forced to repeat what he had done earlier this year, when he took out an injunction to stop publication of an aide memoire, stolen from his solicitor's safe, about his brief relationship with Tricia Howard.
The injunction was obtained after the stolen document had been offered to the News of the World for pounds 30,000, but on 5 February, the Scotsman forced Mr Ashdown's hand with a report headlined: 'Ashdown gags press over stolen private papers'. The English injunction did not cover Scottish papers, and Mr Ashdown had been advised that it was not possible to take parallel action in Scotland.
The Independent's well-placed source said that a similar procedure would be followed with the follow-up allegations, designed specifically to smear and destroy Mr Ashdown, and break the back of Liberal Democrat support.
Senior Liberal Democrats were acutely conscious of the ploy, but they insisted that no British newspaper would print the allegations because they were not true. 'Why are they seeking to get them published in Germany and the United States?' one asked during the campaign. 'Because they know they cannot stand the story up. If they had it, they'd run it, and that's that.'
However, he did concede that Sir David Steel had been the subject of a similarly unsubstantiated Tory smear in the 1987 campaign.
According to Sir David's autobiography, Against Goliath, the preparations for the 1987 campaign had been 'shattered' by one event. After a Manchester press conference 'a reporter from the Daily Express asked if he could have a private word . . . He had been asked by his editor to put to me a story 'going the rounds' at the Scottish Tory conference at Perth and which the News of the World intended to publish on Sunday, namely that I had been having an affair with the wife of a prominent Scottish Liberal . . .
'At first I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Then I became very angry, realising the combined provenance of the story from a Tory conference in a Tory newspaper. I saw this as a deliberate attempt to smear our campaign before it started.'
The next five days, when he should have been immersing himself in the election manifesto, were 'a complete mess' as he dealt with solicitors, press officers, friends and family.
One paper carried the story, swiftly retracted, apologised in open court and paid substantial damages. An injunction was obtained against the News of the World, but the action against them was not settled, out of court, until November 1988 - more than a year after the election.
David Hill, Labour's communications director, said yesterday that he had decided to go hard for the first sign of the 'dirty war' in this year's general election when the Sunday Times had published its allegations about 'Kinnock's Kremlin connection' at the start of February. 'I took the decision then that we had to go for that as an orchestrated campaign to smear Neil Kinnock, and therefore the Labor Party, and the reveal the nexus between Conservative newspapers and Conservative ministers.'
On 2 April, when the Sunday Times published its report on the Kremlin's diplomatic archives, David Mellor appeared on TV- am's Frost programme to say that the Moscow files from the early 1980s, and Mr Kinnock's conversations with Soviet diplomats, showed a 'craven and cringeing approach to the Soviets'.
Roy Hattersley replied that Mr Mellor's intervention demonstrated 'a conspiracy between Tory Central Office and the papers which support them.'
Mr Hill said yesterday: 'I think the Conservative Party were in discussion with the tabloids about whether they should or should not run certain stories, and in the end the tabloids decided not to do it.
'It may be that in the end the tabloid editors said, 'Are you sure this is a good idea? Certainly we'll sell more papers, but will it win you more votes?' '
But there could well have been another ingredient in that dialogue - the very real threat of smear wars between the Tory tabloids and the Labour-supporting Mirror Group papers, in which Tory ministers could be caught in the cross-fire. A senior Mirror executive told the Independent before the election campaign that if the Tory tabloids ran smears against Labour leaders, they would retaliate in kind.
It was said at the time that Mirror papers had files detailing highly-embarrassing allegations about the private lives of at least three very senior Conservative ministers. If the Tory tabloids 'could play that game', so could the Mirror group - which includes the People.
Leading article, page 20
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