The Wednesday Essay: Lord Ashcroft’s ‘pretty desperate’ tactics attempt to mask PM’s bungled hire

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Ben Rowan

Lord Ashcroft, former deputy chairman of the Conservative Party, is to publish scathing details of Ed Miliband’s advisor Tom Baldwin. Ashcroft claims that back in 1999 his bank account was hacked by a private investigator hired by Baldwin, in an attempt to gain information about Ashcroft’s links with the Conservative party and his rather excessive funding of it.

Currently the news is dominated with the hacking scandal and has already closed down the News of the World (NoW). Evidence of hacking and pay-offs have dirtied the waters of theUK establishment in the past week and the public are quite rightly outraged. The thought of dead servicemen’s phones being accessed has created a stink in Fleet Street, far more so than when news that celebrities’ phones and emails had be accessed.

Ashcroft’s allegations, which have resurfaced in light of the hacking scandal, are designed to take attention away from David Cameron and his former communications chief Andy Coulson. Recent events have greatly embarrassed the prime minister because of his ties with Coulson, the editor of the NoW between 2003 and 2007. Coulson was arrested last Friday over allegations of phone hacking and police bribes.

Andy Coulson was a friend of Cameron and was given power in the very centre of government. He has been credited with helping Cameron gain a positive press in the run up to last May’ General Election and has been compared to Alastair Campbell, Blair’s director of communications when he was in power.

Ed Miliband made it absolutely clear on The Andrew Marr Show that the claims of any wrongdoing on the part of Baldwin were not true. He said that he talked about the claims with him and that he was convinced by what he was told. He described Ashcroft’s tactics as ‘pretty desperate stuff’.

It is clear that Miliband has taken the brave step of distancing himself from the press and especially from the Murdoch empire. He has called for Rebekah Brookes to step down, for the BSkyB bid to be stalled and is calling for new regulations in Fleet Street to try to make the press more accountable. This is a very important moment for Miliband and he is finally defining who he is and what he stands for. Critics have complained that Miliband has yet to make his mark on the Labour Party, but this crisis, if handled correctly, could prove to be the moment Miliband has been waiting for.

Taking on the media is a risky and brave move, and the media have threatened to ‘go personal’ with him if he continues to pursue this course. Comparisons can be drawn with Thatcher when she broke the print unions back in the 1980’s.

But the power of the media and the rising dominance of the Murdoch empire is something that has been overlooked for too long. BSkyB has an audience of millions, coupled with Murdoch’s newspapers which include The Times, The Sunday Times, The Sun, the New York Post and until recently the NoW. It is clear that many people feel very uneasy about Murdoch’s bid to increase his share in the television broadcaster and Miliband is now saying what we are all thinking. He has called for a vote in the House of Commons to decide if the BSkyB bid should be stalled until the police have completed their investigations into the phone hacking scandal and he is insisting the Cameron account for his massive error in judgment by hiring Coulson.

This creates a very difficult situation for the coalition because until recently they had been happy to pursue a course of blind optimism in the case of BSkyB. Jeremy Hunt, the politician in charge of overseeing the bid has simply taken assurances from News Corporation that they will not overstep the mark in their charge to become one of the biggest forces of the media age. Naivety is an understatement.

It is clear than many Liberal Democrat mps are very angry about the hacking scandal and they are likely to defect over to Labour when they vote on the matter. Lib Dems have never received a fair press from Murdoch anyway and this is their chance for a little bit of pay back.

Where Cameron and his conservatives stand on the issue is a little more complex and will be causing Cameron a huge amount of stress. By voting to delay the decision over BSkyB, the conservatives will be admitting that Jeremy Hunt has made a massive error in judgment and they will have to admit to following the lead of the Labour Party on this issue. By voting against any delay, they will be going against the public and they will be standing in support of something that reeks of corruption. Ed Miliband’s fast thinking has enabled him to take control over the issue and prove that the Labour Party is not just an opposition. They are an alternative.

So whilst Lord Ashcroft tries to point the finger at Labour and dirty them in some of the foul water coming out of Fleet Street, he is up against something much bigger than Andy Coulson vs Tom Baldwin. His trivial attempts to implicate Ed Miliband in some of the recent allegations are merely an attempt to take some of the sting away from Cameron. Miliband has already taken the leadership on this whole scandal and is beginning to define himself as the compassionate and moral leader we all knew he was. Yes, he is in danger of the press and they will probably do their best to derail him, but if he succeeds he could redefine the media and bring in a new age for the Labour Party.

We shall have to wait and see.

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