At the weekend, we stayed in Hillsborough Castle, official residence of the secretaries of state for Northern Ireland. There, in the 1770s, came Benjamin Franklin. He was said to have got on so badly with Lord Hillsborough, then acting Secretary of State for the Colonies, that he went home and declared the independence of the United States. There, in the 1990s, came numerous Peace Processors; and there, in April 2003, came George W. Bush and Tony Blair to discuss the Iraq they had just invaded. Things have got quieter since then, and our visit was intended as a tour of aspects of the province’s history kindly laid on by the present Secretary of State, Owen Paterson, and his wife Rose. But an accident of timing stirred things up. Our fellow guests included Lord Ashcroft, the owner of the conservativehome website, and Tim Montgomerie, its editor. The BBC led on Friday with Montgomerie’s claim that three Cabinet ministers had told him that the government should drop its Health Bill. Was Paterson one of the indiscreet three? Was a plot afoot at the castle?
No. Paterson was trenchant about the stupidity of ever dropping a ‘flagship’ Bill. He had innocently asked Ashcroft over because the former Tory Treasurer has built up a collection of over 160 Victoria Crosses, and he wanted to introduce him to the several VCs of which Northern Ireland is so proud. But by buying conservativehome, Ashcroft did something shrewd. He has turned himself into the modern equivalent of a press proprietor for about a thousandth of the price. Thanks to Montgomerie’s skill, the website has become the place where all Tory news and gossip appears. It is read by everyone who matters in the government, and its reports are fanned by press and television. The Ashcroft political empire has other branches.