Does Ashcroft use money to control the message?
Tory leader's acquisition of political websites raises questions
When Lord Ashcroft, the Tory donor, announced he was starting a new venture as a digital media mogul last month, buying up two of Britain's most influential political websites, the move was greeted with raised eyebrows in Westminster.
His purchase of PoliticsHome, which publishes political stories from across the media as well as regular surveys, and ConservativeHome, a website for Tory members, suddenly gave him influence over a rapidly growing branch of the media. With both sites receiving about a million hits a month, his opponents suggested he could use the sites to further help the party that has already benefited from his fortune. It provoked a string of high-profile resignations in protest at the arrival of the Tory deputy chairman.
However, rather than a ploy to turn the internet blue, some senior Tories believe that Lord Ashcroft has been buying up online influence in a bid to "shore up" his own position with David Cameron's party and ensure that he is not frozen out once the Conservatives are installed at No 10. "This is very worrying," one Tory frontbencher told The Independent. "He is determined to be the master of his own destiny. He is paranoid about what people say about him."
Lord Ashcroft's millions have been crucial in funding Mr Cameron's campaign to target resources at key marginal seats. The Tory leader has benefited from almost £4m donated from the peer's firm, Bearwood Corporate Services, since he claimed the top job in 2005. However, the support has raised difficult questions for Mr Cameron. Lord Ashcroft has been dogged by controversy over his refusal to answer questions about his tax status.
The editors of both ConservativeHome, which has become the accepted voice of the grassroots and has been critical of the leadership in the past, and PoliticsHome, have said that Lord Ashcroft would not influence their output. Tim Montgomerie, the editor of ConservativeHome, said he had been given "solid assurances" that Lord Ashcroft would not interfere with editorial content.
Montgomerie said the site would be doing "everything in its power to deliver a Conservative Government" in the run-up to the general election, but that this would have been the case regardless of Mr Ashcroft's support. Some in the Tory party believe that Lord Ashcroft's control over the sites will be enough in itself to defend his influence within the party.
Despite the assurances over independence, some involved with the PolitcsHome remained concerned that there were not enough built-in safeguards. It has led to a mass exodus by members of its expert "political panel", which releases opinion surveys. Andrew Rawnsley, a columnist for The Observer, resigned as editor-in-chief, claiming that the site's editorial independence was incompatible with Lord Ashcroft's arrival: "I became editor-in-chief on the basis that PoliticsHome was dedicated to being a non-partisan site clearly independent of any party both editorially and financially. I do not believe that can be compatible with being under the ownership of the deputy chairman of the Conservative party."
John McFall, the Labour chair of the Treasury Select Committee, and Richard Reeves, the director of the think-tank, Demos, are among those to have followed Rawnsley out of the door. About 40 "political panel" members have now made the decision to resign, with more thought to have privately stopped working for the site.
Sources close to Mr Cameron denied there were plans to freeze out Lord Ashcroft after an election victory, noting that he was given a plumb seat to watch Mr Cameron's conference speech on Thursday, beside other "senior party figures" such as its chief executive, Andy Feldman. "He would simply have no need to shore up his position in this way. The party is very grateful to him," the source said. "He is still extremely close to David."
Allies also defended his acquisition of the sites. "He has always had a lot of interests outside politics," said one. "It is not his first foray into the media and I doubt it will be the last."
Lord Ashcroft has fallen out with leaders in the past. A disagreement over Michael Howard's decision to base the 2005 election campaign on immigration saw him sidelined. He later hit out at Mr Howard's approach, saying it "prevents us from connecting with our real core vote and means we will never attract the support of minority communities that we should seek to serve too".
A spokesman for Lord Ashcroft said that the peer's interest in the two sites was entirely entrepreneurial and reiterated that he would not be interfering with editorial policy. He added that he would step down from his role as head of the party's "marginal seat" campaign on the eve of the election. However, he added: "Michael is a lifelong Conservative and he is not going to stop wanting to be involved."
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