Why didn’t Cameron sideline Ashcroft when he had the chance?
Analysis: Francis Elliott and Sam Coates
Why can’t David Cameron sack Lord Ashcroft and put beyond doubt his claim that the Conservative Party has changed? In trying to limit the harm caused by the peer’s admission that he is a “non-dom”, Mr Cameron’s aides say he has given less than 10 per cent of the party’s donations in recent years. But if he’s so insignificant, why not make an example of him?
Another defence, that Mr Cameron forced the issue before the election, begs the obvious question of why he did not act during the previous four and a half years of his leadership?
A third puzzle is the manner and timing of Lord Ashcroft’s admission. Though the Cabinet Office was expected to reveal extra details of assurances he gave before receiving a peerage in 2000, he released more than was due to be published, earlier than its official release. If he caved in to pressure to come clean, no one in the Tory leader’s inner circle is saying so.
Mr Cameron won plaudits for his ruthless despatch of Tory MPs caught up in the expenses scandal. Others who have embarrassed him have been shown no mercy. When Graham Brady, one time Shadow Europe Minister, stepped out of line over grammar schools in 2007, the party briefed that he was for the sack within hours.
Perhaps most telling of all was Mr Cameron’s treatment of Lord Laidlaw — once one of his party’s biggest donors — whose tax status and admission that he was suffering from sex addiction became a cause of controversy. At a lunch for political journalists last year, he mocked the man who had once bankrolled the Tories in Scotland. “Oh dear, we took away the whip but forgot the stockings and suspenders,” Mr Cameron joked.
No such humiliation is likely for Lord Ashcroft. Instead, the leader waved aside concerns over the peer’s ongoing role at the heart of the Conservative Party. He sought credit for having “resolved issues” for the party before the general election. Further questions were “flogging a dead horse”, he insisted.
In truth Mr Cameron knows that, this close to an election, he cannot afford the Ashcroft story to become any bigger. The time to take on the peer was after his election as leader in late 2005, and there were major figures around Mr Cameron who urged him to do just that.
For a while Mr Cameron flirted with radical reforms. He asked a senior MP, Andrew Tyrie, to draw up plans to remove what Mr Tyrie called the “stench in the nostrils of the electorate” of political funding.
But by 2007, when Mr Cameron arranged to formalise the peer’s bankrolling of marginal seats and bring it in-house, the chance for action had gone. Today Lord Ashcroft’s reach is huge. Despite insisting that George Osborne is running the campaign, it is the peer’s team who control polling and strategy in marginal seats.
It is true that Mr Cameron announced in December that he would introduce legislation to stop “non-doms” sitting in Parliament. But he did so after the revelation of the tax status of Zac Goldsmith.
The Government had previously committed to the ban in the 2008 White Paper on Lords reform. Legislation to implement the ban is part of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill, still before the Commons. It may be that Mr Cameron did outfox Lord Ashcroft by forcing him to disclose his tax status before the election campaign. But there is enough unexploded ordnance in the affair to make him very nervous.