Tory inaction over 'smears' attacked

THE CONSERVATIVES were strongly attacked by the Liberal Democrats last night after they ruled out any investigation of allegations that a freelance Tory 'dirty tricks unit' targeted Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrats' leader, with a smear campaign during the April general election.

The highly charged exchanges came as the Press Complaints Commission met to consider the issue of privacy against a background of controversy raised by press reporting of David Mellor's alleged affair with an actress. The PCC concluded that the public had every right to be informed about the private behaviour of politicians, if it could affect their conduct of public business.

Ministers' threats of a clampdown on press 'intrusion' prompted Kelvin MacKenzie, editor of the Sun, to allege on Tuesday that a leading member of the Cabinet had smeared Mr Ashdown in the election, a claim backed by yesterday's Independent report of a March plot to traduce the Liberal Democrat leader.

Charles Kennedy, president of the Liberal Democrat Party, wrote yesterday to Sir Norman Fowler, the Conservative Party chairman, calling for an early meeting to consider the 'extremely serious allegations' that had been raised by the Sun and the Independent.

Conservative Central Office had already repudiated Mr MacKenzie's claim that his office had been called by a Cabinet member bearing false allegations about Mr Ashdown's private life. Having canvassed the reaction of each member of the Cabinet, it said they all denied any knowledge of the matter.

Sir Norman told Mr Kennedy last night that in the light of that comprehensive statement: 'The matter is now closed.'

But Mr Kennedy issued an angry counter-statement, in which he said: 'This is a response of breath-taking arrogance. Apparently closed minds behind avowedly closed doors is scarcely the best advertisement for John Major's more open style of politics and government. The public must form their own conclusion.'

In his initial approach, Mr Kennedy told Sir Norman: 'We wish to be reassured that you are taking the necessary steps to discover the truth behind these claims, and are taking the appropriate action within your own party.

'I trust you will agree - should the allegations be substantiated - that the minister involved would not be able to continue in office. Politics in Britain should be conducted in an open and free manner. It is of the utmost importance for the health of our democracy that these suggestions are cleared up once and for all.'

Mr Kennedy told BBC radio: 'The ball rests firmly in the Conservative Party's court.'

Sir David Steel, the former party leader who himself suffered an unsubstantiated smear before the 1987 election, told BBC's World at One: 'If it were the case that there was some kind of dirty tricks unit operating - and let me say, I believe there was - I also believe it wasn't operating at the behest of the command of the Tory Party.

'I think these things happen on a freelance basis and if that was going on then it ought to be exposed and that was the purpose of Charles Kennedy's letter to Norman Fowler; to suggest that they have a meeting and get to the bottom of it.

'I've had one Cabinet minister named to me this morning. I don't know whether it is true or not, but I certainly think it ought to be pursued.'

Mr Kennedy told the Independent: 'In a rational world, it would seem hard to believe that a Cabinet minister could be quite so stupid. But stupidity, or obsession, can become the order of the day in what looks like a very close election.

'I think, given the ferment we're seeing with regard to private conversations across the media at present, in a politically charged situation like an election, it's probably incautious to assume that any conversation is utterly private and shows a measure of desperation.'

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark production team claims innocence of viewers' ab frenzy
Life and Style
Google marks the 81st anniversary of the Loch Ness Monster's most famous photograph
techIt's the 81st anniversary of THAT iconic photograph
News
Katie Hopkins makes a living out of courting controversy
people
News
General Election
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: HR Assistant - Immediate Start - Central Manchester - £20K

£18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Assistant - Immediate ...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Development Engineer

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading manufacturer of fl...

Recruitment Genius: Field Sales Operative - Oxfordshire / Worcestershire - OTE £30k

£12000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Field Sales Operative is requ...

Recruitment Genius: Office Administrator

£14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Office Administrator is requ...

Day In a Page

Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

Open letter to David Cameron

Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

You don't say!

Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

So what is Mubi?

Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

The hardest job in theatre?

How to follow Kevin Spacey
Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

This human tragedy has been brewing for years

EU states can't say they were not warned
Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

Women's sportswear

From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

Clinton's clothes

Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders