Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday Lord Ashcroft, happy birthday to you.
Yes, the Great Man of Mystery celebrates his 64th birthday today. But three problems may be casting a cloud over the cake-cutting. First, he is being talked about in the media, which he seems not to like. Second, despite David Cameron’s best efforts to say ‘the matter is closed,’ it most certainly is not. And third, what on earth will Dave, George, William et al get for the GMM as a present … I mean what do you give to a man who has everything, including a fair chunk of his own political party?
What they could all do with is some half-decent political judgement. One of the reasons we had a reasonably smooth election campaign in 1997 (admittedly with a lot of paddling beneath the surface) was that in the years leading up to it, not just TB, but JP, GB, Peter Mandelson and I were determined that come the campaign, we had to have an answer to all the difficult questions that might boil up during the final weeks. Melon-sized brains like those belonging to Derry Irvine and Charlie Falconer were employed with the specific task of pinning us down on the loose ends and the difficult questions that arose as those ends were unpicked.
Cameron needs some Melons!
As my diaries record, there were some pretty bruising debates and exchanges along the way as we sought to resolve difficult political, policy and personnel issues. But it was far better to have that than to risk sudden explosions to our disadvantage during the campaign, as had happened for example in the 1987 and1992 campaigns when unanswered tax and spending tensions flared open under Tory pressure.
The Tories’ handling of the Ashcroft issue strikes me as the worst kind of political management – ‘turn the other way and hopefully it will go away’ .
Watching interviews with Cameron, Hague, Osborne and many other senior Tories in recent months, I have constantly been thinking – why have they not dealt with this? Why can’t they see it is going to become a problem for them, and that the size of the problem will grow as they prevaricate? Then it became fairly clear that either they had asked the right questions, but because they didn’t like the answers they decided to go into heads down, ‘let’s not talk about it ‘mode, or they had not asked the right questions at all, out of some fear of Ashcroft and his financial muscle, which is so important to their campaign.
Whichever it is, it has made Ashcroft an issue of Cameron’s judgement and Hague’s judgement, as well as an issue of their arrogance in thinking this would not become the problem it is becoming.
It will reinforce doubts people have about whether they have what it takes to be effective at the top of government. As I look at David Miliband as Foreign Secretary, at least I have no doubt of his competence and his ability to ask the right questions and keep asking until he gets the answers. I now look at William Hague and think that for all his Northern wit and charm, the poor judgement that put paid to his leadership of his Party has not improved with time, even if his image has. His credibility could take a battering on this. He could also find himself disabled within the campaign itself, meaning more reliance on Cameron and Osborne.
Which might make it Happy Birthday Labour.
** Buy The Blair Years online and raise a few quid to help fight the Ashcroft millions http://www.alastaircampbell.org/bookshop.php.