The real reason Gove attacked Lord Ashcroft

Former Times columnist launched attack after Ashcroft sued the paper over drugs allegations.

Have a look at these sharp (and very funny) quotes about Lord Ashcroft:

"[T]he Tories, fatally, foolishly, put all their eggs in the Belize basket. They secured the short-term comfort of Mr Ashcroft's tax-sheltered millions, but have paid the price in credibility forgone."

"Mr Hague certainly has a well-developed sense of humour . . . You certainly do not emerge strengthened as an opponent of cronyism by expending what credibility you have acting as the paid lobbyist for your own title-hungry treasurer."

"He [William Hague] must be able to see that Mr Ashcroft's comments are not the stuff of good-natured self-deprecation. They convey the authentic whiff of a man who brooks no opposition to his will, and enjoys no check on his arrogance, and they serve to make an already tawdry episode quite ridiculous."

Now take a guess at their author. Silver-tongued Peter Mandelson, perhaps? Jack Straw at his most indignant? The increasingly assertive David Miliband?

In fact, the person responsible is the very man the Tories put up on Newsnight last night to apologise for Ashcroft's misdemeanours, the shadow schools secretary Michael Gove.

Back in 2000, while a columnist for the Times, Gove penned this furious polemic against Ashcroft shortly after the non-dom's elevation to the House of Lords. Confronted with his words today, he waves his hand and explains that, as a columnist, he was "paid to entertain". Gove is too modest. His piece is no mere flight of fancy; it is a howl of moral outrage.

He is also not telling the full story. I do not make too great a presumption when I assume that Gove's Times column was related to Ashcroft's decision to sue the newspaper in question less than a year earlier.

Ashcroft sued for libel after the Times published a story in July 1999 suggesting that the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) had the Tory donor in its sights as a narcotics smuggler and money-launderer. What the paper did not explain was that Ashcroft was just one of five million people on whom the DEA routinely kept files.

The two parties eventually reached an out-of-court agreement and Rupert Murdoch agreed to print a front-page statement withdrawing the allegations. Ashcroft has since told his side of the story in the savage Dirty Politics, Dirty Times: My Fight With Wapping and New Labour.

I dare say that Ashcroft and Gove now take a rather more favourable view of each other, but it is in this context that Gove's earlier attack must be placed.

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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She knew every trick to get a home visit – but this time I had come prepared

 Having been conned into another couple of fruitless house calls, I now parry the proffered symptoms and generally get to the heart of the matter on the phone.

I first came across Verenice a couple of years ago when I was on duty at the out-of-hours service.

“I’m a diabetic,” she told me, “and I’m feeling really poorly.” She detailed a litany of symptoms. I said I’d be round straight away.

What sounded worrying on the phone proved very different in Verenice’s smoke-fugged sitting room. She was comfortable and chatty, she had no fever or sign of illness, and her blood sugar was well controlled. In fact, she looked remarkably well. As I tried to draw the visit to a close, she began to regale me with complaints about her own GP: how he neglected her needs, dismissed her symptoms, refused to take her calls.

It sounded unlikely, but I listened sympathetically and with an open mind. Bit by bit, other professionals were brought into the frame: persecutory social workers, vindictive housing officers, corrupt policemen, and a particularly odious psychiatrist who’d had her locked up in hospital for months and had recently discharged her to live in this new, hateful bungalow.

By the time she had told me about her sit-in at the local newspaper’s offices – to try to force reporters to cover her story – and described her attempts to get arrested so that she could go to court and tell a judge about the whole saga, it was clear Verenice wasn’t interacting with the world in quite the same way as the rest of us.

It’s a delicate path to tread, extricating oneself from such a situation. The mental health issues could safely be left to her usual daytime team to follow up, so my task was to get out of the door without further inflaming the perceptions of neglect and maltreatment. It didn’t go too well to start with. Her voice got louder and louder: was I, too, going to do nothing to help? Couldn’t I see she was really ill? I’d be sorry when she didn’t wake up the next morning.

What worked fantastically was asking her what she actually wanted me to do. Her first stab – to get her rehoused to her old area as an emergency that evening – was so beyond the plausible that even she seemed able to accept my protestations of impotence. When I asked her again, suddenly all the heat went out of her voice. She said she didn’t think she had any food; could I get her something to eat? A swift check revealed a fridge and cupboards stocked with the basics. I gave her some menu suggestions, but drew the line at preparing the meal myself. By then, she seemed meekly willing to allow me to go.

We’ve had many out-of-hours conversations since. For all her strangeness, she is wily, and knows the medical gambits to play in order to trigger a home visit. Having been conned into another couple of fruitless house calls, I now parry the proffered symptoms and generally get to the heart of the matter on the phone. It usually revolves around food. Could I bring some bread and milk? She’s got no phone credit left; could I call the Chinese and order her a home delivery?

She came up on the screen again recently. I rang, and she spoke of excruciating ear pain, discharge and fever. I sighed, accepting defeat: with that story I’d no choice but to go round. Acting on an inkling, though, I popped to the drug cupboard first.

Predictably enough, when I arrived at Verenice’s I found her smiling away and puffing on a Benson, with a normal temperature, pristine ears and perfect blood glucose.

“Well,” I said, “whatever’s causing your ear to hurt is a medical mystery. Take some paracetamol and I’m sure it’ll be fine in the morning.”

There was a flash of triumph in her eyes. “Ah, but doctor, I haven’t got any. Could you –”

Before she could finish, I produced a pack of paracetamol from my pocket and dropped it on her lap. She looked at me with surprise and admiration. She may have suckered me round again, but I’d managed to second-guess her. I was back out of the door in under five minutes. A score-draw. 

Phil Whitaker is a GP and an award-winning author. His fifth novel, “Sister Sebastian’s Library”, will be published by Salt in September

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain