Tories say Ashcroft peerage row is 'smokescreen'

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The leader of the Conservatives in the House of Lords today defended the controversial peerage given to the party's billionaire treasurer Michael Ashcroft.

Lord Strathclyde said the row over Mr Ashcroft's peerage was a smokescreen to draw attention away from Prime Minister Tony Blair's other appointments of working peers in a bid to pack the house with his supporters.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "He got his peerage for a number of reasons. Of course, he is treasurer of the Conservative Party and he is a very wealthy man and has given 10% of the Conservative Party's funding over the last few years.

"But also, he is an international businessman, a substantial employer in this country and he gives to charity. He set up one of the most important anti-crime charities in this country - Crimestoppers - and continues to support that.

"If you compare him to many people in the House of Lords now, and who have been there before, I think there is every good reason why he should have got his seat."

Lord Strathclyde said he believed the Labour Party was whipping up controversy over Mr Ashcroft to distract attention from Mr Blair's "stuffing" of the Lords with his own supporters.

"This is a good old attack on the Conservative Party to allow the Prime Minister to put another 20 or 30 peers into the House of Lords," he said.

"Michael Ashcroft has no say whatsoever over Conservative Party policy. He is not part of that decision-making process."

But one of the strongest attacks on Mr Ashcroft's elevation, made conditional on his returning to live in Britain, was Viscount Cranborne, Lord Strathclyde's predecessor in the Lords.

He said the decision to ennoble Mr Ashcroft, on William Hague's recommendation, was "an affront to the dignity and standing" of the Conservative Party and Parliament.

He told The Times: "I regard the award of a peerage as primarily the award of a right to become a member of the British Parliament and that implies that the recipient is worthy and already satisfies all the criteria which we would expect.

"As far as I know, it is unprecedented for conditions to be set before anybody can become a peer.

"It reminds me of the way medieval Popes made their nephews into cardinals."

Peter Bradley, Labour MP for The Wrekin, who has led the Commons attacks on Mr Ashcroft, said: "If William Hague had any judgment he would know that this is a very bad day for the Conservative Party. Cash for coronets plumbs new depths."

In exchange for his peerage, Belize-based Mr Ashcroft, who has donated £3 million to the Conservatives, must become a permanent resident in Britain.

There were 32 other new peers created in a list released by Downing Street last night - including former Olympic gold medallist and now Private Secretary to Mr Hague Sebastian Coe.

Mr Ashcroft, who last night said he was "both thrilled and honoured" at the decision, is to step down as United Nations ambassador for Belize as the first step towards ending his exile.

He gave what Downing Street said was a "clear and unequivocal assurance" that he would take up permanent residence in the UK before the end of the year and would not take up his seat in the Lords until after his return.

Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman Menzies Campbell said: "The rules would not have been bent if Mr Ashcroft had not been a £3 million supporter of the Tory Party. Anyone who thinks that manipulation of this kind enhances the reputation of Parliament and politics is living on another planet."

Mr Ashcroft, who last year was involved in a bitter libel battle with The Times newspaper and a row about his large-scale donations to the Tory Party, said: "I am both thrilled and honoured to have become a working peer, and I look forward to being able to make a contribution to the work of the Upper House.

"As a businessman, as a campaigner against crime and drugs, and as a political party fundraiser, there are a number of subjects in which I have both great interest and some experience. I hope to put these to work.

"As a firm believer in opportunity, enterprise and the freedom of the individual, I look forward to taking the Conservative Whip and helping wherever I can to working as part of the Tory team in the Lords."

The new working peers are made up of 20 Labour, four Conservative and nine Liberal Democrats.

Among the Labour life peers are five former hereditary peers who lost their right to sit in the House of Lords in November last year.

The so-called "re-treads" are Baron Acton, Baron Berkeley, Viscount Chandos, Baron Grenfell and Baron Ponsonby.

The Labour peers also include television executive Alexander Bernstein, chairman of the Bar Council Daniel Brennan and managing director of publishers Faber and Faber, Matthew Evans.

Among the nine Liberal Democrats are also two former hereditary peers - the Earl of Mar and Kellie and Baron Redesdale.

Liberal Democrat peers also include veteran party activist Tony Greaves, former MP for Farnworth John Roper and public relations consultant Joan Walmsley.

With the new working Lords there will be 202 Labour peers in the Lords, 236 Conservative, 63 Liberal Democrats, 161 crossbenchers and 26 Bishops and Archbishops.