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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Why relations between Theresa May and Philip Hammond became tense so quickly

The political imperative of controlling immigration is clashing with the economic imperative of maintaining growth. 

There is no relationship in government more important than that between the prime minister and the chancellor. When Theresa May entered No.10, she chose Philip Hammond, a dependable technocrat and long-standing ally who she had known since Oxford University. 

But relations between the pair have proved far tenser than anticipated. On Wednesday, Hammond suggested that students could be excluded from the net migration target. "We are having conversations within government about the most appropriate way to record and address net migration," he told the Treasury select committee. The Chancellor, in common with many others, has long regarded the inclusion of students as an obstacle to growth. 

The following day Hammond was publicly rebuked by No.10. "Our position on who is included in the figures has not changed, and we are categorically not reviewing whether or not students are included," a spokesman said (as I reported in advance, May believes that the public would see this move as "a fix"). 

This is not the only clash in May's first 100 days. Hammond was aggrieved by the Prime Minister's criticisms of loose monetary policy (which forced No.10 to state that it "respects the independence of the Bank of England") and is resisting tougher controls on foreign takeovers. The Chancellor has also struck a more sceptical tone on the UK's economic prospects. "It is clear to me that the British people did not vote on June 23 to become poorer," he declared in his conference speech, a signal that national prosperity must come before control of immigration. 

May and Hammond's relationship was never going to match the remarkable bond between David Cameron and George Osborne. But should relations worsen it risks becoming closer to that beween Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling. Like Hammond, Darling entered the Treasury as a calm technocrat and an ally of the PM. But the extraordinary circumstances of the financial crisis transformed him into a far more assertive figure.

In times of turmoil, there is an inevitable clash between political and economic priorities. As prime minister, Brown resisted talk of cuts for fear of the electoral consequences. But as chancellor, Darling was more concerned with the bottom line (backing a rise in VAT). By analogy, May is focused on the political imperative of controlling immigration, while Hammond is focused on the economic imperative of maintaining growth. If their relationship is to endure far tougher times they will soon need to find a middle way. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.