Ashcroft tight-lipped about peerage row

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Indy Politics

Conservative Party treasurer Michael Ashcroft today refused to discuss the furore which has blown up around the award to him of a peerage.

Speaking in Harrogate, where the party is holding its annual Spring Forum, Mr Ashcroft said he was "very thrilled" to receive a title and was looking forward to joining the House of Lords, but refused to answer questions about the reaction his enoblement has provoked.

The row over Mr Ashcroft's elevation is threatening to overshadow the two-day event, following ex Prime Minister Sir Edward Heath's comment that it was a "disgrace" and former Tory leader in the Lords Viscount Cranborne's denunciation of it as "an affront to the dignity" of Parliament.

The controversy over the latest working peers' list has centred on Belize-based Mr Ashcroft, who has donated £3 million to the Conservatives, and gained his peerage after pledging to become a permanent resident in Britain.

This morning Mr Ashcroft received warm applause from the Tories' National Convention as he gave details of the party's finances in a meeting behind closed doors.

He was able to announce that for the first time since the 1997 election, the Conservatives' books were balanced on running costs, though he added that substantial debts still remained.

Speaking after the meeting he said: "I am obviously very thrilled at what has happened. I look forward very much to taking my seat in the House of Lords.

"I won't be making any comment until I do take that place.

"Meanwhile, I am the treasurer of the Conservative Party and we have got a lot of work to do and I am on my way to do that."

Mr Ashcroft ignored reporters' questions and climbed into a taxi which was taking him to a further series of meetings behind closed doors.

The statement was expected to be Mr Ashcroft's only appearance in public during the Spring Forum. Party spokesmen said that he would not be joining the leadership podium and were unable to say whether he would attend any of the debates.

Party chairman Michael Ancram defended the Belize-based businessman against suggestions that he had effectively bought his peerage with a £1 million-a-year donation to Tory coffers.

He said: "What would have been quite extraordinary would be if he was the first treasurer of the Tory Party not to have been nominated.

"The Labour Party are desperately keen to focus on this to distract attention from the fact that they are trying to pack the House of Lords with their cronies.

"Edward Heath has voiced his opinions of disapproval over a lot of things that the party has done over the last 25 years since he was leader, but he will remember that treasurers have always been nominated for peerages, even when he was Prime Minister."

Delegates who attended this morning's meeting said there was no show of opposition to Mr Ashcroft's ennoblement.

Peter Chalke, from Salisbury, said: "I looked around the hall and I didn't see anyone who wasn't clapping. The feeling here is that Labour are making a lot of fuss over this, when they have Lord Sainsbury in their government making decisions when he gives £2 million a year to the party."

And Adrian Joel, from south west Norfolk, added: "He has a lot to offer and I think he will do an excellent job in the Lords."

Later today, Shadow Chancellor Michael Portillo will give a keynote speech pledging Tory commitment to public sector provision of health and education.

Aides said the unscripted speech would aim to "nail very hard the Labour lie" that the Tories would privatise the NHS.

Mr Portillo will restate his promise to match Labour's spending pledges on education and health, including the multi billion pound package in last month's Budget.

But Chief Secretary to the Treasurer Andrew Smith this morning challenged him to square this pledge with recent comments which he said suggest the Conservatives are planning to rely more heavily on the private sector.

He pointed to a GMTV interview last month in which Mr Portillo spoke of creating "new sources of finance" for health provision, including employer-funded insurance and a Money Programme on which he called for Chancellor Gordon Brown to cut taxes rather than increase public spending.

Mr Smith said: "The Tories have proved they do not support increased spending on the NHS. They are committed to reckless and irresponsible tax cuts for the few, regardless of economic circumstances."