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Sunday, February 14, 2010

When ignorance is not the best policy

If there is one issue that continues to dog the Conservative Party and pull them back it is the tax status of their biggest donor, Lord Michael Ashcroft. Whole interviews are devoted to it, spokespeople seeking to get across a wider point find their pitch derailed by questions on it, whilst whole campaigns are being planned around Tory embarrassment in time for the General Election.

The Tories' problem is that Lord Ashcroft is pumping millions of pounds into marginal seats. His money could make all the difference between a Tory majority or another miss and yet he remains a controversial figure who continues to hold them back nationally.

Last week, Sir George Young, the shadow leader of the house, suggested in a Newsnight interview that Ashcroft was a "non-dom", but a spokesman rapidly corrected the comment, saying Young had "mis-spoken".

That this is having an impact on Tory morale is illustrated by this piece in this morning's Observer in which the Conservative party chairman, Eric Pickles, reveals his frustration over Lord Ashcroft's tax status:

In an interview to be broadcast tomorrow, Pickles admits that he does not know the financial arrangements of the peer, who has funded the party's campaigns in dozens of marginal seats and is also a deputy party chairman.

Asked if Ashcroft was a "non-dom" – someone who pays UK tax only on their earnings in this country – Pickles says he is in the dark on the issue: "I'm not in a position to be able to tell you."

Pickles also hints that he is irritated by the secrecy surrounding Ashcroft and the constant media demands for clarity. "I do not know what his tax status is. If I did, I would certainly tell you," he says.

Asked to comment on recent comments from the information ­commissioner, who has accused the Tories of "obfuscatory" answers on Ashcroft, Pickles says: "I was very alarmed by that. We have gone back to check what more we could do."

But he stops short of saying that his deputy should be more open. "That's a matter for him to consider. Lord Ashcroft is entitled to his privacy," Pickles tells Evening Standard journalist Anne McElvoy for a Radio 4 documentary on the future of party funding.

This is of course an issue of public interest and far from the private matter that senior Tories claim. Lord Ashcroft got his peerage on condition that he became a full British taxpayer. He bankrolls a major British party and stands to wield considerable influence in any future Tory government. As such it is only right that we know whether he has fulfilled his obligations to this country.

The Cabinet Office has been ordered by the ­information commissioner to reveal, within weeks, the terms of the agreement into which Ashcroft entered as a condition of ­ennoblement. That revelation at least will open up the debate and may put David Cameron under even more pressure to publish details Ashcroft's tax status. I cannot wait.
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