It may be one of the most foolhardy libel actions ever taken. As a tear- stained David Ashby pushed his way through the crowds outside the High Court yesterday, he must have wondered why he had seen fit to jeopardise his family, political career and financial security.
In the three-week court drama, that sank to absurd and tragic depths, Mr Ashby exposed every detail of his private life, from his sexual impotence to adoration of his garden pond, condemned his wife as an obsessive, spiteful and foul-mouthed woman, risked bankruptcy and still failed to convince the jury that he was not a homosexual, a liar and a hypocrite.
The decline and fall of Mr Ashby, a grammar-school boy from High Wycombe, is a bewildering tale of misguided pride and self-deceit. For nearly three decades he enjoyed an unspectacular public life as a barrister and in local government before rising to the backbenches of Westminster as Tory MP for Leicestershire North West in 1983. Although his marriage was always fiery, his career was pedestrian.
The most notable controversies in his political life were a call for a golf ban on Wimbledon Common in 1984 after his Italian wife, Silvana, was hit on the nose by an errant ball, and a telling off for writing Christmas cards during a House of Commons committee session.
His spectacular arrival in the spotlight came as a wave of sleaze allegations against Tory MPs began to make a public mockery of John Major's "Back to Basics" campaign. The Sunday Times revealed that he had shared a double bed with Dr Ciaran Kilduff, 32, his neighbour, at a hotel in France - the Chateau Tilques in Orme - when twin-bedded rooms were available for the same price.
When Mr Ashby left his wife in 1993 after 28 "tempestuous" years of marriage, he said he was depressed, ill and desperate for friendship, and he found it in a man. "I can honestly say I had no one. I'd spent a life being isolated . . . I'd been isolated from my family because of my wife's attitude, and from friends."
While searching for a flat to escape his miserable home life, he met Dr Kilduff in his garden. Apparently he provided a sympathetic listening ear, and the two men immediately struck up a friendship. Shortly afterwards Mr Ashby bought the flat above Dr Kilduff's, and his wife's suspicions were aroused, although both men have consistently denied they are homosexual.
They agreed to go to France together on the understanding, according to Mr Ashby, they shared a room to save money.
Already the Tory party had lurched from one humiliating sleaze scandal to another. As one Tory MP affair was revealed after another, it became clear the party had placed itself in the line of its own fire with "Back to Basics". Tim Yeo, the MP, exposed as the father of an illegitimate child, was the first to fall in a flush of exposes.
With the spotlight on the domestic lives of Tory MPs, Chateau Tilques was already Mr Ashby's downfall. When the Sunday Times received anonymous phone calls in 1993 alleging that he was gay, and had left his wife to live close to Dr Kilduff in south-west London, the paper saw the next sleaze scandal in its reach.
A senior reporter was immediately sent to Mrs Ashby's home, also in Putney, to put the allegations to her. Although Mrs Ashby denies she in any way gave information, she could not deny the facts being put to her.
When the story broke, Mr Ashby was besieged by journalists at the family home, with Mrs Ashby and Alexandra, 27, their daughter, who flew over from Milan where she works as a stockbroker.
According to Mrs Ashby, her husband desperately appealed to her to go out and issue a statement saying she was a liar, and she had made the story up. Mrs Ashby remained at her husband's side, but refused to lie for him.
"He said 'I've got a solution to get rid of all those people, you just have to go and say you've made a terrible mistake, that you've been lying, that you're a very vengeful and spiteful, and the reason these things came out is because you're very sorry I left you," Mrs Ashby said. "I said, 'Really David there's a limit to what I will do'."
Not only was Mr Ashby left to justify himself, but a journalist had recovered the bill for the hotel room at Chateau Tilques from the dustbin at his Putney flat. In typical bombastic style, Mr Ashby went on the defensive, dismissing suggestions he was having an affair with Dr Kilduff as "tripe."
But the Sunday Times was eager not to let the scandal it had set in motion out of its grasp. Although Mr Ashby was not a high-profile figure, in the political climate his alleged hypocrisy was the perfect scandal. It received another tip-off that Mr Ashby had travelled to Goa on holiday, and again shared a bed with a man.
This time the anonymous source proved less effective. Despite confusing evidence from various staff at the hotel, described as a discreet love nest where few questions were asked, it emerged Mr Ashby had indeed travelled there alone.
Mr Ashby saw his chance for revenge. If the newspaper had unearthed the right story, it had tripped over the wrong facts. In an act that sealed his fate, he decided to take both the Sunday Times and Andrew Neil, its former editor, to court.
Comment, page 15
Family at war, Section Two
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