Lord Ashcroft shifts ground over Tom Baldwin affair

Backtracks on "promise" to publish evidence.

As the phone-hacking scandal continues to steamroller all before it there is a new and interesting intervention today from Lord Ashcroft on his own Conservative Home website.

Last week Ashcroft made a series of allegations on Conservative Home against Tom Baldwin, Ed Miliband's strategy director, dating back to Baldwin's time as a journalist for the Times.

In his initial post Ashcroft claimed that Baldwin had "commissioned" a private investigator named Gavin Sangfield to gain access to his (Ashcroft's) private financial details, including his bank account, through a practice known as "blagging".

According to Ashcroft

Mr Singfield was charged by Mr Baldwin and his colleagues with accessing information from a bank account held at the Drummonds branch of the Royal Bank of Scotland in Charing Cross Road, London. The bank account from which Mr Baldwin sought information belonged to the Conservative Party, and his interest was confined to payments - perfectly legal ones - which I had made to that account.

Baldwin's commissioning of these activities was, according to Lord Ashcroft, "an infringement of the law".

However in today's post Lord Ashcroft appears to be attempting to subtly shift his ground. This morning, rather than charge Baldwin with "commissioning" Sangfield, Ashcroft instead alleges:

Mr Baldwin denied to his new boss that he had commissioned a private investigator to target me. But he has not denied that the Times commissioned Mr Singfield. Nor has he denied that he worked with the private investigator. Nor that he was responsible for handling the unlawfully acquired material.

What's also worth noting is that on Monday the Daily Telegraph reported that, "A source close to Lord Ashcroft, a leading Tory donor, said he planned to publish evidence to back his claims 'within days'." However, in today's post Ashcroft writes,

I am now hopeful that the Metropolitan Police, having admitted at the weekend that its probe into hacking allegations was inadequate, will now carry out a new inquiry into the activities of the "blaggers" who targeted me, [Gordon] Brown and others. For the moment, I am not publishing documents in my possession - obtained perfectly legitimately, by the way -- because I do not wish to jeopardise what I now hope will be a renewed attempt by the police to bring Mr Baldwin in front of a criminal court.

Although Tom Baldwin has not responded publicly to the allegations, Ed Miliband said on the Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, "People are trying to make a comparison between Andy Coulson, who resigned from the News of the World over phone hacking of the Royal family, and Tom Baldwin, who works for me. I think this is ridiculous."

He added, "Tom Baldwin was engaged in the Times newspaper, including an investigation of Michael Ashcroft, about whom there was massive public interest."

And asked about the specific allegations made by Lord Ashcroft, he said: "Tom Baldwin absolutely denies this. And I have to say that this is pretty desperate stuff because the Prime Minister must answer the real questions at the heart of this affair - about his error of judgment in hiring Andy Coulson and the mounting evidence there now is about the warnings that were given to him before he brought Andy Coulson into the heart of the Government machine."

This afternoon's debate on phone hacking and the BSkyB takeover should be one to watch.

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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn turns "the nasty party" back on Theresa May

The Labour leader exploited Conservative splits over disability benefits.

It didn't take long for Theresa May to herald the Conservatives' Copeland by-election victory at PMQs (and one couldn't blame her). But Jeremy Corbyn swiftly brought her down to earth. The Labour leader denounced the government for "sneaking out" its decision to overrule a court judgement calling for Personal Independence Payments (PIPs) to be extended to those with severe mental health problems.

Rather than merely expressing his own outrage, Corbyn drew on that of others. He smartly quoted Tory backbencher Heidi Allen, one of the tax credit rebels, who has called on May to "think agan" and "honour" the court's rulings. The Prime Minister protested that the government was merely returning PIPs to their "original intention" and was already spending more than ever on those with mental health conditions. But Corbyn had more ammunition, denouncing Conservative policy chair George Freeman for his suggestion that those "taking pills" for anxiety aren't "really disabled". After May branded Labour "the nasty party" in her conference speech, Corbyn suggested that the Tories were once again worthy of her epithet.

May emphasised that Freeman had apologised and, as so often, warned that the "extra support" promised by Labour would be impossible without the "strong economy" guaranteed by the Conservatives. "The one thing we know about Labour is that they would bankrupt Britain," she declared. Unlike on previous occasions, Corbyn had a ready riposte, reminding the Tories that they had increased the national debt by more than every previous Labour government.

But May saved her jibe of choice for the end, recalling shadow cabinet minister Cat Smith's assertion that the Copeland result was an "incredible achivement" for her party. "I think that word actually sums up the Right Honourable Gentleman's leadership. In-cred-ible," May concluded, with a rather surreal Thatcher-esque flourish.

Yet many economists and EU experts say the same of her Brexit plan. Having repeatedly hailed the UK's "strong economy" (which has so far proved resilient), May had better hope that single market withdrawal does not wreck it. But on Brexit, as on disability benefits, it is Conservative rebels, not Corbyn, who will determine her fate.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.