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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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