Peter Hoskin

The Tories and Lord Ashcroft – stupidity rather than wrongdoing?<br />

The Tories and Lord Ashcroft – stupidity rather than wrongdoing?<br />
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So the Lord Ashcroft story is back on the airwaves, courtesy of a document leaked to the BBC.  That document shows William Hague was "satisfied" with the discussions about Ashcroft's undertakings in 2000 – so the Tories wheeled the shadow foreign secretary onto the Today programme to explain himself to Evan Davis.  Three things struck me:

i) Stupidity rather than wrongdoing.  When the Ashcroft story first broke a couple of weeks ago, Labour seemed eager to turn it into one of Tory wrongdoing – they called for inquiries left, right and centre (indeed, there's one taking place today), in the apparent hope that they'd find something improper had gone on.  

But the more that's emerged, the less likely that has become.  As Hague stressed earlier, today's leaked documents highlight that various figures and bodies – from Sir Hayden Phillips to Downing Street – were either satisifed or aware that Ashcroft was meeting the terms of his undertaking by becoming resident in the UK.  There's little question that Ashcroft was doing things more or less by the book.

But, at best, the Tories are coming out of this looking increasingly naive.  If we take Hague's word for it that he only knew about Ascroft's non-dom status a "few months" ago, then the question remains of why he didn't look into it earlier.  Indeed, it's telling that Hague himself said, "we can be criticised for that."  And his excuses on the matter were, at times, extraordinarily weak.  He even suggested that he didn't fully look into the siutation when he was Tory leader because he had "1001 other problems" to deal with – so he was only interested in whether Lord Ashcroft was fulfilling his residency obligation.

From the Tories' perspective, though, this does slightly defuse the issue for them.  Evan Davis was left exasperated: "It does seem remarkable that you should leave this issue to the beginning of the election campaign to deal with it."  Which is hard to disagree with.  But while stupid strategy may be worrying from a potential future government, it is hardly, in this case, a crime.

ii) Tory boldness.  Despite those less-than-convincing excuses, Hague took most of the interview on the front foot.  He kicked off by insinuating that the government had leaked this document to the Beeb; proof of a "culture of leak, half-truth and spin."  And he went on to say that the Tories would publish the document in its entirity, as it "blows the idea that this was a secret Tory plot out of the water".  Would that they were this direct on the issue a few years ago.

iii) Booooring.  At the end of the interview, Nick Robinson said that families at their breakfast tables will be "scratching their heads" over why the Tories didn't clear this up sooner.  Maybe so.  But I think they'll be scratching their heads more at all the financial lingo that was flung around.  "Non-dom ... dom ... resident for tax purposes ... non dom ... dom ... permanent resident ... dom, dom, dom" – you get the picture.  To my mind, this is one of the reasons why the story didn't really jolt the polls a couple of weeks ago: even if people can pick up on a general mood that something's not right, it's just not sexy enough to tune into properly.

UPDATE: More here from the Telegraph on Hague admitting to "mistakes" over  handling the affair.