One of the Conservatives’ largest donors launched a scathing attack on the party he once bankrolled, accusing David Cameron and his officials of subjecting him to “public humiliation” over false “cash for access” allegations.
Peter Cruddas, the Tories’ former treasurer, said he was “cut off” and “made to feel like an outcast” within hours of the publication of a newspaper report that claimed he was offering Tory donors inappropriate access to the Prime Minister for a fee of £250,000.
Today the High Court ruled in favour of Mr Cruddas in his libel claim against The Sunday Times for defamation and malicious falsehood, and awarded him £180,000 in damages.
The judge said the story, based on an undercover “sting” operation, had given a highly misleading impression of Mr Cruddas’s conduct. He said the report of what he said was “completely unacceptable and wrong”.
Speaking after the judgment Mr Cruddas – who has donated £1.2m to the party since Mr Cameron became leader in 2005 – attacked not just The Sunday Times but also the Conservatives, and specifically Mr Cameron, for rushing to judgement.
“The Conservative Party cut me off within two hours of the story breaking and did not want to hear my side of the story,” he said. “I was constructively dismissed from my role as party treasurer and made to feel like an outcast as the Prime Minister and the party lined up to criticise me on television and radio. This hurt me immensely and further damaged my reputation.
“It is very disappointing that the Conservative Party gave a knee-jerk reaction when this story broke without listening to my side. The party’s motives should have been about truth and fairness but, instead, they chose to focus on what was politically less damaging.”
The former Conservative treasurer and major donor Lord Ashcroft backed Mr Cruddas and called on David Cameron to apologise. “Mr Cruddas quite rightly alerted the party’s hierarchy to events and must have hoped for, even expected, its full support,” he wrote. “Yet, despite contradicting the paper’s version of events, he was forced to resign within hours and was ostracised by senior party figures. I hope that Mr Cameron will now offer Mr Cruddas an apology for his criticism.”
But the Conservative chairman Grant Shapps repeatedly refused to apologise on behalf of the party for the way Mr Cruddas was treated. He said: “I think Peter Cruddas did exactly the right thing. He has pursued this through the courts and got the outcome that he wanted.”
Pressed on whether there was a need for the Tories and Mr Cameron to say sorry, Mr Shapps replied: “I don’t really think it’s a question of that.”
The Sunday Times allegations arose after journalists for the paper pretended to be agents for foreign investors who wanted to explore making donations to the party and hired a lobbyist, through whom they arranged to meet Mr Cruddas.
The 59-year-old businessman brought the claim against Times Newspapers Ltd and two members of the newspaper’s Insight team over three articles which appeared in 2012. Mr Cruddas complained the reports were libellous in suggesting he was corruptly offering the opportunity to influence Government policy and gain unfair advantage through secret meetings with the Prime Minister and other senior ministers in return for cash donations to the Conservative Party.
Mr Cruddas also said The Sunday Times suggested he had breached a ban under UK electoral law by making the offer even though he knew that money for setting up meetings would follow from Middle Eastern investors in a Liechtenstein fund, and was happy that the foreign donors should use deceptive devices to conceal the true source of the donation.
In his finding, the judge said that the journalists involved knew that the articles were false. They had “a dominant intention to injure Mr Cruddas, and they expressed delight when they learnt that they had caused his resignation”.
Mr Justice Tugendhat said the allegations received the maximum possible publicity and were very grave. “Mr Cruddas has suffered great personal distress, both directly, and through his family and the employees of his company. He has suffered public humiliation from the Prime Minister.”