Lord Ashcroft, the controversial Conservative Deputy Chairman, today blames David Cameron's decision to join a televised leaders' debate for contributing to the party's failure to win an overall victory in the general election.
The billionaire Tory donor argues that giving a national platform to Nick Clegg changed the "narrative and rhythm" of the campaign, enabling the Liberal Democrat leader to portray himself as the candidate offering real change. Lord Ashcroft, who confirmed yesterday that he would be standing down, also insists it was a mistake to concentrate on attacking Gordon Brown rather than spelling out the party's own policy plans.
His decision to quit this month will relieve many in Mr Cameron's inner circle. Lord Ashcroft caused a major headache for the Tory leader after it emerged he did not pay tax on all of his overseas business empire. The row was reopened shortly before the election when he was accused of reneging on a promise to give up his "non-domiciled" status made as a condition of being handed his peerage.
His analysis of the party's election campaign – which he had helped to fund – had been anxiously awaited in Conservative headquarters. Tory sources insisted that predictions that he would launch a scathing attack on the party leadership in his book, Minority Verdict, which is published today, were unfounded. Although the book's executive summary, released yesterday, said it would not be a "hatchet job", the peer's conclusions will still make difficult reading for Mr Cameron's team.
He says he was disappointed by the election result and asks why the party failed to turn its double-digit opinion-poll leads into a "thumping" Commons majority. Lord Ashcroft argues that the party did not do enough to transform the Tory "brand" or to convince former Labour voters that the party had really changed.
He also says that agreeing to the televised leaders' debates was "arguably a tactical error which exposed a strategic problem". Lord Ashcroft writes: "Three weeks before the election the market was still wide open for a party of change. Nick Clegg was only able to appropriate the territory of "real change" because we did not dominate it ourselves."
A Tory spokesman said: "Michael helped to fight a great campaign and we're all extremely grateful for his tireless work as Deputy Chairman. This book is part of the 'lessons learnt' exercise and we should welcome it. He has made a very significant contribution to the success of the Conservative Party and we thank him for his dedication."
But Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay, a Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman, said: "I'm delighted that Lord Ashcroft has done his bit for coalition harmony by standing down ... Big money always means big problems in British politics."
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