Michael Gove Times column: Ashcroft is "comedian" who puts Tories' "entire electoral strategy at risk"

[FULL TEXT OF TIMES ARTICLE BELOW]

What does Michael Gove (the 2010 Tory front bencher) really think about Lord Ashcroft?  To find out, why don’t we ask Michael Gove (the 2000 Times leader writer)! This is precisely what Kirsty Wark did last night as she ambushed the shadow schools secretary with his column of 4 April 2000:

Gove’s dismissal of a heartfelt polemic as the work of a raconteur playing to the gallery simply does not pass muster. As the then Tory treasurer (and commoner) Michael Ashcroft waited on tenterhooks for news of his ennoblement, Gove claimed unmistakably that the billionaire was a liability to the Conservative Party and rails against the foolhardiness of his elevation.

He (hilariously) compares Ashcroft to Jim Davidson, mocks his ambition to be raised to “Lord Ashcroft of Belize” while making the grave charge that the Conservatives’ “unhealthy reliance on Ashcroft puts its entire electoral strategy at risk”.

The full column is reproduced below but here are some choice quotes:

Enjoy!

Mr Hague and three nation Toryism

By Michael Gove, Tuesday 4 April 2000

The party’s unhealthy reliance on Ashcroft puts its entire electoral strategy at risk

Move over, Jim Davidson. Now there’s an even more high-profile comedian backing the Tories. Let’s give a big welcome to king of the one-liners, self-made millionaire and self-styled “wag”, Lord “I was just taking the Michael ” Ashcroft . The Conservative Party treasurer exposed a new, lighter, side to his character when he revealed at the weekend that he would seal his elevation to the peerage by taking the title of Lord Ashcroft of Belize.

And why not? We’ve had Earl Mountbatten of Burma, Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, why shouldn’t the man who collects Victoria Crosses ensure that the latest gong he’s acquired also has a military ring to it? Let’s run this one up the flag of convenience and see who salutes.

But before we had time to get on to the College of Heralds to see what the Caribbean peer’s new coat of arms might look like (tax exile rampant holding his party by the coconuts?) we were told by William Hague that it was all “a little joke”. Laugh? I never thought I’d start. Was the Tory party leader really asking us to believe that this was all a magnificent spoof, a surreal send-up of the interviewing process by the Tories’ own Ali G? Was Mickey A trying to suggest that there was something subtly racist about the Political Honours Scrutiny Committee insisting that a peer of the realm actually live in the nation whose laws he will frame? “You won’t make me a lord? Is it cos I is Caribbean?”

Mr Hague certainly has a well-developed sense of humour. He used it to coruscating effect against the Government in his reply to the Budget two weeks ago. So he must be able to see that Mr Ashcroft ‘s comments are not the stuff of good-natured self-deprecation. They convey the authentic whiff of a man who brooks no opposition to his will, and enjoys no check on his arrogance, and they serve to make an already tawdry episode quite ridiculous.

For the voters of Middle England, to whom Mr Hague sought to appeal over the weekend, the abiding memory of the last Tory Government is of an administration embroiled in sleaze, isolated from common-sense morality, at ease with foreign arms dealers and up for hire to corporate interests. The moral dissolution of that Government was lent a tragi-comic edge by the fumbled excuses it offered; the cocksure throwaway line of Neil Hamilton’s about placing a biscuit in the Register of Members’ Interests, the suggestion by David Willetts that he was using the word “want” in its “18th-century sense” when accused of misrepresenting his dealings with a member of the Commons Privileges Committee.

The impression created was of a Government without governing purpose, anxious only to keep favoured snouts in close proximity to private troughs, and so contemptuous of the public as to feed it any old swill when exposed to criticism.

One might have thought that any Conservative who emerged from the wreckage of the 1997 crash would pledge, above all, never to make those mistakes again. Surely they would steer clear of association with figures, such as Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare, whose talent for fiction rendered all connected with him, literally, incredible.  Surely they would jib at relying on such a man once they were told he was the paymaster of a left-wing party in the country whose interests he represented at the United Nations? Surely they would worry that he had used his influence to change the tax regime in that country in a manner which served his own interests but which, according to a Foreign Office memo, would make that country less capable of withstanding criminality?

But no, the Tories, fatally, foolishly, put all their eggs in the Belize basket. They secured the short-term comfort of Mr Ashcroft ‘s tax-sheltered millions, but have paid the price in credibility forgone. How can they now effectively serve the purpose an Opposition should, as the independent, patriotic, scourge of an influence-peddling administration? To paraphrase Rudyard Kipling, once you start taking the danegeld, you never get rid of the stain.

You certainly do not emerge strengthened as an opponent of cronyism by expending what credibility you have acting as the paid lobbyist for your own title-hungry Treasurer. What was Mr Hague doing calling the Prime Minister at the Lisbon summit to intercede for Mr Ashcroft ‘s peerage? How credible is your attack on “three jets” Blair when you’re string-pulling for “three countries” Ashcroft ? And how credible is your claim to speak for Middle Britain when your party thinks it’s amusing to joke about its reliance on Belize? Never mind Neil Hamilton, when it comes to making light of Parliament’s dignity, Michael Ashcroft takes the biscuit.

There is often something disingenuous about those who claim to protest more in sorrow than in anger. But genuine anger and deep sorrow are the only appropriate emotions many mainstream Tories will feel when they see their party’s spring conference overshadowed by this avoidable debacle. What is the point in this man’s money when it comes, like his peerage, with so many ignominious strings? It inhibits any effective campaign against Labour’s corporatist relationship with big business, it revives the ghosts of 1997 and it blunts any assault on Tony Blair’s manipulation of patronage. Why wasn’t the Conservative Party capable of seeing how much trouble reliance on this one man would cause? Now, it’s his party. And I’ll cry if I want to.