Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Ashcroft response shows Dave's growing arrogance about accountability

David Cameron has rightly been praised for his communication skills over the last four years. The "call me Dave" brand has been presented as the very model of openness and accountability. But it is his own cameras which get to come in and see him do the washing up.

Yet the Tory leader's increasing distaste for media accountability, except on his own terms, is one of the most striking features of the Ashcroft affair.

This reaction could become almost as politically problematic as Ashcroft's decade-long spell of dissembling about his tax status.

The Guardian, Independent and Times have all consistently sought to give the case for Tory modernisers a (very) fair hearing: something that irks a portion of the Guardian readership. All of those newspapers have been rather different in their approach to Cameronism than the consistent anti-Tory partisanship of the Mirror, for example.

All made the judgment that the Ashcroft affair was the political news story of the day this morning - and that there were many legitimate questions which yesterday's brief statement left resolved. Each is publishing information which further calls the veracity of Ashcroft's account into question.

And yet David Cameron has unilaterally decided that no further questions or scrutiny from major media outlets over his deputy chairman is legitimate.

The horse is dead and should no longer be flogged

His spokespeople have said, to the questions compiled by the major newspapers:

"We are not responding"

The main Tory message is "buzz off - its none of your business".

Want to know if David Cameron felt he had the authority to ask his own deputy chairman to level with him? Fat chance.

Want to know whether or not the man who would be Foreign Secretary has known for almost a decade how Ashcroft reinterpreted his solemn and binding commitment? Go hang.

Want to get to the bottom of who in the government Ashcroft renegotiated his unequivocal commitments with? Wondering how he managed to fulfil his obligations through the "long-standing resident" rule when this only came into force in Spring 2008? Get lost.

After ten years of stonewalling and a blanket refusal to understand that the Ashcroft tax status was a legitimate issue of public inquiry, we have had short statement (in effect, forced by an FOI request), followed, immediately, by the demand for silence, and a return to refusing to see that this is a legitimate issue of public inquiry.

That is completely untenable.

The Guardian demonstrates that the scrutiny committee which approved Ashcroft's peerage, after his tax status led to his nomination being rejected in 1999, was very clear that his unequivocal commitments in 2000 would not be met by maintaining non-dom status. (And Ashcroft's new account also appears dishonest and misleading, as the "long-term resident" rule did not exist for another eight years).

A major editorial in Wednesday's Times says that Cameron's own personal integrity now depends on his acting to end Ashcroft's key party role, because "As any reasonable person would now have to concede, these assurances [of 2000] have not been met".

The paper asks:

Did his eventual admission of non-dom status come as a surprise to Mr Hague, or to David Cameron, or to any of the other senior Conservatives who have defended him? For their own integrity, one must hope that it did


Lord Ashcroft’s dissembling and duplicity stand as a slight to Parliament, Mr Cameron’s leadership and this newspaper. With an election mere weeks away, even Lord Ashcroft must realise that he has served his party as much as he can. Mr Cameron should thank him for this service, and ask him to return to the private life that he so clearly craves.


But the instinct to evade scrutiny and accountability may go well beyond the Tories' Ashcroft embarassment. Take David Cameron's attempt to turn the criticism that he is a shallow salesman on its head in his Tory Spring Conference address on Saturday.

I want to get out round the world, not filling up the aeroplane with journalists, but filling it up with businessmen.

That intriguing choice of contrast may have inadvertently revealed that something else on Cameon's mind: his lack of appetite for travelling with the media pack during the imminent election campaign itself.

The Conservatives are considering what they can learn from two months in which they have been very wobbly under scrutiny. The key lesson seems to be the belief that since new year this would be government-in-waiting have offered too much policy, rather than too little!

The wobbles are strengthening the idea of trying to work out how to restrict, as far as possible, the amount of media scrutiny of the leader during the campaign and control the terms of access.

It may be interesting to watch how far they try to take it.

For a great decentraliser, Cameron frequently seems to find it very difficult to rein in his inner control freak.

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