The darker side of Dave

As the media hunt for a challenger to Gordon Brown, they have all but ignored the r

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One Friday afternoon shortly before the 2005 election, pol itical journalists from the Sunday newspapers received a call from Labour's high command telling them to get to the party's Victoria Street headquarters as quickly as possible. They were ushered into a conference room, where they found Alastair Campbell, the party's former communications chief, attired in polo shirt and shorts and armed with a dossier for each reporter present. The über-spinner had been brought in to bolster faint hearts.

He explained that the party was picking up the first indi cations that things were not looking good in the key marginal seats. The Conservatives were proving to be a significant threat largely because of the vast sums of money being shovelled into the party coffers by Lord Ashcroft, the party's millionaire former treasurer. These, said Campbell, were being paid directly to the campaigns of Tory candidates in target constituencies. It looked like a classic story for the Sundays, intended to persuade wavering Labour voters disillusioned by the war in Iraq that the Tories remained a threat.

The gathered media pack was not convinced. After all, Campbell and his dossiers had form. The idea that Labour was genuinely frightened of Michael Howard, who had run a pitiful campaign dominated by right-wing scaremongering, was laughable. Few of the journalists present were persuaded. Some didn't run a single word in the papers that weekend.

Remarkably, Campbell happened to be telling the unspun truth on this occasion. Figures released immediately after the election showed that Ashcroft had paid £280,000 in donations to 33 candidates in marginal constituencies in the first three months of 2005. As a result, 11 of these candidates unseated the Labour MP and five Tory marginals were saved. It transpired that this was just part of Ashcroft's contribution. He had also loaned the party £3.6m. A consortium of donors, including Ashcroft, the casino tycoon Lord Steinberg and the car importer Robert Edmiston, had funded 93 constituency campaigns. According to research by Peter Bradley, who lost his seat in the Wrekin after a 5 per cent swing to the Tories, it turned out that, of the 36 gains, 24 had been targeted by the consortium. In some seats, such as Bradley's own, the Conservatives outspent Labour tenfold.

The name Michael Ashcroft still sends a chill down Labour spines. Bradley's analysis, and personal experience, show that those in marginal seats are wise to fear for their future. They also know that it was the Ashcroft money that persuaded the Blairite inner circle to seek out the loans that led to the catastrophic cash-for-peerages affair. There is deep frustration within the party that the Conservative loans given before the 2005 election appear not to have been held up to the same level of scrutiny as those brought in by the Prime Minister's personal fundraiser Lord Levy.

Labour's high command knows that Ashcroft is a fearsome adversary, prepared to take on the new Labour establishment and its allies in the media. He successfully disputed allegations published in the Times about his business dealings, forcing a front-page apology. Senior Labour figures are concerned that Ashcroft's influence has gone largely unchallenged. But in this area, as in so many others, Labour is no longer able to drive the agenda. There was a time not so long ago when Labour ran an attack unit providing almost daily stories about Tory sleaze. As with other aspects of the party's cash-starved organisation, the unit has not operated since the 2005 election.

There is barely contained fury within Gordon Brown's camp that such media operations are impossible while Blair remains in power, with the police hovering at the door of No 10. A source close to the Chancellor told me: "It is pretty clear that the present regime hasn't been able to go on the attack. But the residual Labour Party attack machine will get back into action. Hands have been tied."

Renewed scrutiny

There should be plenty for Labour, and the media, to get their teeth into. Those around Cameron know he has had a relatively easy ride so far. There is little doubt that Ashcroft will come under renewed scrutiny, despite his liberal use of the libel laws. Since December 2005, he has been a Tory deputy chairman, with special responsibility for marginal seats, polling and the party's youth wing, Conservative Future. His influence cannot be underestimated. His pamphlet Smell the Coffee, published straight after the last election, was a blueprint for a new era. It argued for the party to shift to the centre ground, to target resources more effectively and woo the mainstream support of professionals, women and aspirational voters of all backgrounds and races. It could have been written by Cameron. Ashcroft remains a highly controversial figure, especially in the Caribbean, where the tiny state of Belize has been his fiefdom. He was required to assume British residency in order to take his seat in the Lords, but still most of his business interests are abroad.

Ashcroft will not be their only target. Once Blair is gone, Brown's shock troops will waste no time in reminding people that Scotland Yard's cash-for-honours inquiry also covers the Tories. Edmiston was questioned by the police over his £2m loan to the party and his subsequent nomination for a peerage by Howard. He also helped establish Constituency Campaigning Services, which is central to the Tories' strategy for marginal seats. The relationship of CCS to the Conservative Party is under investigation by the Electoral Commission to see if the arrangement broke campaign rules. A further three prominent Tory donors - Irvine Laidlaw, Leonard Steinberg and Stanley Kalms - were given peerages after being nominated by Iain Duncan Smith. Meanwhile, Johan Eliasch, the Swedish head of the sportswear company Head, lent the party £2.6m and serves as the party's deputy treasurer. He is also an adviser to the shadow foreign secretary, William Hague.

The Conservative Party has been careful to cultivate an image as a political movement aloof from the vicious politics of Westminster. It has done this while developing a tougher edge to its media operation. During the darkest days of Duncan Smith's leadership, press officers at Central Office used to spend their time constructing elaborate paper aeroplanes to test-fly from desk to desk. Another bizarre but symbolic game involved jumping off the desks into waste-paper bins: anything rather than answer the phones to a press pack which had scented blood.

Spin machine

Now the small group of trusted advisers around Cameron has created a finely honed machine in the renamed Conservative Campaign Headquarters. The furore over Brown's decision to remove tax credits on pension dividends in 1997 shows how slick the spin machine has become. In recent days, commuters at train stations were greeted with a mock tabloid front page lampooning Brown over the pensions crisis, with the headline "Gordon Brown ate my pension". Such an operation is reminiscent of Labour circa 1995. It depends on cash, organisa-tion and bodies on the ground. On all three fronts, the 2007 Labour Party just can't compete.

Yet there are other fronts on which the Tories are vulnerable. They appear to have grown somewhat blasé about their fundraising. Cameron was reprimanded by the parliamentary watchdog last month for hosting seven "Leader's Club" lunches for businessmen at the Commons. He has since apologised. Not so long ago this would have been seized on as evidence of Tory sleaze. These dinners still take place, but outside parliament, where business people can purchase access to the leader for £50,000 (or they can meet other top Tories at the Shadow Chancellor's Club or the Frontbench Club).

So why has the Labour machine gone so quiet? There is another theory doing the rounds in the Brownite camp. Apart from the obvious issues of resources, the Chancellor's people suspect a lack of political will because of personal connections between the Cameroons and the Blairites. A particular bone of contention is the friendship between Benjamin Wegg-Prosser, Blair's head of strategy, and Rachel Whetstone, a top Tory apparatchik who also happens to be the partner of Cameron's right-hand man and PR guru, Steve Hilton.

For the present, what is left of the Labour's media fire-power is being concentrated on Scotland and the SNP. But if and when Brown becomes leader the gloves will come off. The Chancellor's circle intends to go on the attack against Cameron from the minute Blair leaves Downing Street. The Tories, for their part, will not take it lying down. They will abandon their image of the party that shuns "yah boo" politics. "If Gordon Brown comes for us, all that will go out of the window," a Tory insider told me. The Conservatives are starting to build their own anti-Brown attack unit at their new headquarters on, yes, Millbank, an updated version of Labour's highly effective team of the late 1990s. We are heading for a bloody political summer.

Five things the Tories don't want you to know about "Dave"

1 He is a member of White's in St James's, an elite, male-only establishment (his father, Ian, was once its chairman). At Oxford, he was notoriously a member of the exclusive all-male Bullingdon dining club, famous for its hard drinking and bad behaviour.

2 As special adviser to the chancellor Norman Lamont in 1992, Cameron did nothing to challenge policies that led to the collapse of the pound on Black Wednesday

3 He spent almost seven years as director of corporate affairs for Carlton Communications (a job he acquired with the help of family connections). Ian King, the Sun's business editor, describes him as "poisonous" and "a smarmy bully who regularly threatened journalists who dared to write anything negative about Carlton"

4 He praised his wife's stationery company in a GQ interview. And on Desert Island Discs, he plugged a book by his friend Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and chose a case of whisky made by a company co-owned by the Tory donor Robert Tchenguiz

5 He was forced to make an embarrassing apology last month for breaking the MPs' code of conduct by hosting fundraising lunches at his Commons office

Sam Alexandroni

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