William Hague slapped down his controversial party treasurer yesterday and made clear he would not allow him to take the title Lord Ashcroft of Belize.
Calling a halt to Michael Ashcroft's act of defiance to the honours scrutiny committee - which has ordered him to live in Britain before he can take his seat in the Lords - the Tory leader dismissed the Belize title as "a little joke", although Mr Ashcroft said earlier that it was not. Sources close to the billionaire businessman said he was "being a bit of wag" but confirmed: "It is something that emotionally he would have liked to have done."
Mr Ashcroft privately said he felt it was "unnecessary" for the honours scrutiny committee to order him to give up his Belize ambassadorship to the United Nations. "I am very sad, but I accept the ruling by the committee," he said.
The continuing dispute over Mr Ashcroft's peerage overshadowed the start yesterday of the Tories' spring conference in Harrogate. It has also undermined Mr Hague's growing assault on Tony Blair's use of patronage and the appointment of the so-called Tony's cronies to the Lords.
Mr Hague confirmed reports that he had telephoned the Prime Minister at the Lisbon summit over the initial blocking of a peerage for the tax exile who has donated more than £3m to Tory party funds, although he denied "begging" on Mr Ashcroft's behalf.
Instead, Tory sources claimed, Mr Hague rang to protest to the Prime Minister about Downing Street allegedly leaking damaging stories about the Tories engaging in last-minute negotiations to secure a peerage for Mr Ashcroft.
The Cabinet Secretary, Sir Richard Wilson, is carrying out a leaks inquiry, but Mr Hague was infuriated again at the weekend that his telephone call to the Prime Minister was also revealed to newspapers.
Mr Hague's aides said it was "unbelievable and unprecedented" that such confidential information had become public knowledge. "There is a feeling of betrayal, as if we have sunk to a new low in politics." Senior Tories are convinced Downing Street was behind the reports, but the Prime Minister's aides denied they were responsible.
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