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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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.