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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Owen Smith promises to be a "cold-eyed revolutionary" - but tiptoes round Brexit

The Labour leader challenger takes Jeremy Corbyn on at his own anti-austerity game. 

Owen Smith may be challenging Jeremy Corbyn for the Labour leadership but it seems he has learnt a thing or two from his former boss. 

One year on from abstaining from the Tory Welfare Bill - a decision he now says he regrets - Smith attacked the former Chancellor George Osborne’s austerity policies from Orgreave, a former steel plant which was pivotal during the miners’ strike.  

Listing frustrations from library cuts to delayed trains, Smith declared: “Behind all of these frustrations is one cause – austerity.”

Borrowing the rhetoric that served Corbyn so well, he banged the drum about pay, labour rights and fair taxes. 

Indeed, a spokesman from Jeremy for Labour popped up to say as much: “We welcome Owen’s focus on equality of outcome, reindustrialisation and workers' rights - and his support for policies announced in recent months by Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell.”

On policy, though, Smith showed a touch of his own. 

His description of the Department for Work and Pensions as “a byword for cruelty and insecurity” resonates with the deep fear many benefit claimants feel for this faceless but all powerful authority. His promise to scrap it will not go unnoticed.

Another promise, to end the public sector pay freeze, is timely given widespread expectations that withdrawing from the EU’s single market will push up prices. 

He also appealed to the unions with a pledge to scrap the “vicious and vindictive” Trade Union Act. 

The policies may be Corbynite, but where Smith stands out is his determination to be specific and practical. He is selling himself as the Corbyn who actually gets things done. Asked about what he would replace zero-hours contracts with, he responded: "Well it could be one [hour]. But it can't be zero."

As he concluded his speech, he promised “revolution” but continued:

“Not some misty eyed romanticism about a revolution to overthrow capitalism.

“But a cold-eyed, practical, socialist revolution, through a radical Labour Government that puts in place the laws and the levers that can genuinely even things up.”

Smith’s speech, though, steered clear of grappling with the big issues of Brexit. He stands in favour of a second referendum on the Brexit deal, which may appease Labour's inner city voters but could frustrate others who voted Leave.

On the free movement of people – widely viewed as a dividing line between Labour’s Corbynite members and the wider voting population - he has been vague. He has previously expressed support for the "progressive case against freedom of movement" and criticised Corbyn for failing to understand patriotism. But this is not the same as drawing up policy. Whether he can come up with strong views on immigration and still appeal to both voter bases will be his biggest challenge of all. 

Owen Smith's 20 policies

1.      A pledge to focus on equality of outcome, not equality of opportunity 
2.      Scrapping the DWP and replacing it with a Ministry for Labour and a Department for Social Security
3.      Introducing modern wages councils for hotel, shop and care workers to strengthen terms and conditions
4.      Banning zero hour contracts
5.      Ending the public sector pay freeze
6.      Extending the right to information and consultation to cover all workplaces with more than 50 employees
7.      Ensuring workers’ representation on remuneration committees
8.      Repealing the Trade Union Act
9.      Increase spending on the NHS by 4 per cent in real-terms in every year of the next parliament
10.  Commit to bringing NHS funding up to the European average within the first term of a Labour Government
11.  Greater spending on schools and libraries
12.  Re-instate the 50p top rate of income tax
13.  Reverse the reductions in Corporation Tax due to take place over the next four years
14.  Reverse cuts to Inheritance Tax announced in the Summer Budget
15.  Reverse cuts to Capital Gains Tax announced in the Summer Budget
16.  Introduce a new wealth Tax on the top 1 per cent earners
17.  A British New Deal unveiling £200bn of investment over five years
18.  A commitment to invest tens of billions in the North of England, and to bring forward High Speed 3
19.  A pledge to build 300,000 homes in every year of the next parliament – 1.5 million over five years
20.  Ending the scandal of fuel poverty by investing in efficient energy