Hague begged Blair for Ashcroft peerage

William Hague, the leader of the Conservative party, was so desperate to get his party treasurer a peerage that he begged the Prime Minister to intervene.

Sources close to the Government claimed that Mr Hague rang Tony Blair 10 days ago while he was attending the Lisbon summit and urged him to back Michael Ashcroft's peerage. Mr Blair was bemused by the request and pointed out to Mr Hague that the Political Honours Scrutiny Committee was a body whose independence party leaders always respected.

The revelations add considerably to the controversy that is growing over Mr Ashcroft's ennoblement. Senior Conservatives have condemned in vitriolic terms the peerage for the Belize-based businessman who is now the party's biggest donor. Sir Edward Heath called it "a disgrace" and Viscount Cranborne, former Tory leader in the Lords, denounced the move as "an affront to the dignity of Parliament".

The fuss threatened to overshadow the Conservative party's spring conference in Harrogate and Mr Hague's keynote speech today. Mr Hague intends to use the speech to accuse Mr Blair of lying to the middle classes but instead his own judgement is being brought into question.

Mr Hague's backing of Mr Ashcroft is becoming as embarrassing and inexplicable as his support for Lord Archer. A senior backbencher said: "I and many of my colleagues are wondering why this man is considered so important that William Hague is willing to soak up this much damaging publicity."

What Mr Hague hoped to achieve by soliciting the support of Mr Blair is not entirely clear. Earlier that week, the Times had reported that Mr Ashcroft's peerage had been turned down by the Scrutiny Committee, but Tory Party insiders claim the recommendation was never explicitly turned down.

What seems more likely is that the committee headed by Lord Weatherill made it clear that they were minded to reject Mr Ashcroft unless they had assurances on his residency. Hence the subsequent condition that was attached to the peerage: that Mr Ashcroft resumes British residency.

Last night Peter Bradley, Labour MP for The Wrekin, wrote to Mr Hague challenging him to come clean on why and how he lobbied for Mr Ashcroft. He has also said that under the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act 1925 it is an offence to obtain an honour for someone who has given any form of gift or "valuable consideration".

Mr Bradley said: "In nominating Michael Ashcroft for a peerage William Hague has chosen political bankruptcy for the Conservative party over financial bankruptcy."

Mr Ashcroft, who finally appeared yesterday at the spring conference, refused to discuss the furore which has blown up around. He said he was looking forward to joining the House of Lords, but refused to answer questions about the reaction his ennoblement has provoked.

Party chairman Michael Ancram defended Mr Ashcroft against suggestions that he had effectively bought his peerage with a £1m-a-year donation to Tory coffers.

He said: "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."

Last night both Downing Street and a Tory party spokesman said they never commented on private conversations between the Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition.