Editor's claim undermines attack on paper: The Mellor allegations have led to reports that the Conservatives have sought to harm rivals' reputations

THE PUBLIC disgust of ministers that the People should have published details about David Mellor's alleged affair with an actress has been blown apart by the Sun editor's revelation that a Cabinet minister smeared Paddy Ashdown at the height of the election campaign.

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

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Sarah Silverman (middle) with sister Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman (right) and sister actress Laura Silverman (left) at Jerusalem's Western Wall for feminist Hanuka candle-lighting ceremony
peopleControversial comedian stages pro-equality Hanukkah lighting during a protest at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall
Arts and Entertainment
The Bach Choir has been crowned the inaugural winner of Sky Arts’ show The Great Culture Quiz
arts + ents140-year-old choir declared winner of Sky Arts' 'The Great Culture Quiz'
Life and Style
food + drink
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas