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5 February 2007

A new credibility and a new scrutiny

Loans for honours has led to a cold fear gripping Labour. But the more electorally credible Cameron

By Martin Bright

As Labour has stumbled from crisis to crisis, each of its own making, the Conservatives have been looking in good shape. David Cameron’s intervention on the question of radical Islam, which he correctly identified as the mirror image of the British National Party, was sure-footed, and it broached a sensitive area where he had previously feared to tread.

His views were informed by an impressive interim report from his policy group on national and international security, which said too many Muslim groups were concerned with promoting Islamic political ideology rather than genuinely representing the communities they serve. This shows that, for the first time in many years, there is a Tory leader surrounded by people able to give him sound advice.

At the same time, David Davis, the shadow home secretary, has been forensic but not hysterical in his pursuit of John Reid, a technique he honed while watching Beverley Hughes, David Blunkett and Charles Clarke become engulfed by the black hole that is the Home Office. The latest poll shows the Conservatives five points ahead of Labour, which is not quite enough to win the next election, but still a solid lead.

However,, the gambling website that now rivals conventional polling as a barometer, has the Tories at 4/6 to win the next election (that is to say, so likely that the odds are hardly worth betting on). Boundary changes to be announced imminently will further improve the Tories’ chances. Although it will still take a substantial swing for an outright Tory victory, it is now accepted that 48 “supermarginals” will decide the next election. At the moment, Labour’s majority of 67 looks fragile indeed.

Many of the same pundits who believed the loans-for-honours investigation was a cruel stunt predicted that the questioning of Tony Blair at Christmas suggested the police inquiries were drawing to a close. Yet the inquiry moves on. The arrest of the Prime Minister’s director of government relations, Ruth Turner, on suspicion of perverting the course of justice, and now Lord Levy, means the final days of Blair will be dominated by this crisis, whenever he chooses to leave. A cold fear has gripped his government.

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New scrutiny

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In these circumstances, you might think the Conservatives could afford to feel smug. But they should avoid the temptation. The stance on radical Islam may be morally admirable, but they could still find themselves labelled as the anti-Muslim party.

Attempts by the “Cameroon” soft centre to persuade members in safe seats to take black and Asian candidates have been thwarted. Cameron has already been forced to compromise on his A list to allow local parties more autonomy, and this will not help create a more diverse party in Westminster. (The Tory leader told one potentially excellent non-white candidate that he should set his sights lower and look for a marginal seat.)

Cameron faces a serious conundrum. The more credible an electoral proposition he becomes, the more his own party’s finances will come under scrutiny. The more he concentrates his fire on the crucial supermarginals, the more our attention will be focused on the man funding the battle there: Michael Ashcroft, or Baron Ashcroft of Chichester, to give him his full title. In March, when the cash-for-honours story first broke, the Tories revealed that Ashcroft had loaned them £3.6m, well in excess of any single loan to Labour. Ashcroft is now deputy party chairman, with responsibility for Conservative Future, the Tory youth wing, as well as opinion research and, crucially, target seats.

Research carried out by Peter Bradley, the former Labour MP who has followed Ashcroft’s career closely, shows that the Tories outspent Labour in 19 of the 23 target seats they won in 2005. Ashcroft’s money may not have won the Tories the last election, but it certainly helped slash the Labour majority and pushed Blair and those around him into a desperate dash for cash.

On the Labour side, Lords Sainsbury and Drayson found themselves in government posts after making large donations to the party. But their influence is as nothing compared to Ashcroft, who has in effect rebuilt the Conservative Party in his image. Ashcroft has been questioned by the police in the honours probe, but there is no suggestion of wrongdoing. That, however, is not the point. The Tories will still be in hock to Ashcroft. I am told he is popular within the party machine and his ideas for the future are respected. But is it healthy that anyone should be allowed to buy such influence within a major party? When Ashcroft was Conservative treasurer he ran into controversy over his business dealings in Belize, which he ran as his personal fiefdom. Now Tory activists should be concerned that their own party, too, may become one man’s domain.