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Friday, 31 March, 2000, 10:52 GMT 11:52 UK
Leaders under fire over new peers

Tony Blair's list of new peers has hit both main parties
By BBC News Online's political correspondent Nick Assinder

Tory leader William Hague says he feels "vindicated" in his support for billionaire party Treasurer Michael Ashcroft after he was elevated to the Lords.

Apparently he believes there has been a smear campaign against the controversial businessman, and the peerage effectively proves he is whiter than white.

Why else would the prime minister and the honours scrutiny committee accept his nomination at the second attempt?, he argues.

And it is certainly true that none of the allegations of dodgy dealing have ever been substantiated against Mr Ashcroft.

Tony Blair: Aschroft's name was a gift
However, because of the controversies surrounding him and his bankrolling of the Tory party, a political storm in the wake of his elevation was inevitable.

What is surprising is that Mr Hague apparently did not see the thunder clouds gathering.

His critics claim he probably knew full well what was about to hit him, but was not about to go back on an alleged promise to Mr Ashcroft to get him into the upper House.

They claim the whole incident recalls the worst abuses of the system, which reached its nadir with Lloyd George's habit of selling honours.

Embarrassing strings

Mr Hague's supporters, on the other hand, rightly point to the fact that Labour's Lord Sainsbury helped bankroll Tony Blair's party to the tune of 2m last year alone, and is also a minister with an influence on government policy.

It is also quite possible that Mr Hague did not expect the scrutiny committee to attach unprecedented and deeply embarrassing strings to the peerage.

And he may even have been taken by surprise at the attack on the move by the former Tory leader in the Lords, Viscount Cranborne.

Either way, the decision has handed Tony Blair another chance to accuse the Tory leader of lacking political judgment.

The prime minister probably could not believe his luck when he saw Mr Ashcroft's name on the list of would-be Lords presented to him by Mr Hague.

And he would have found it difficult to suppress a smile when he rubber-stamped the list, knowing that it would deflect some of the attacks on him for appointing a batch of "Tony's cronies" to the Lords. But that smile may well be short lived.

Apart from the inevitable counter attack on Labour peers like Lord Sainsbury who are big donors to the party, there will also be continuing criticism of the prime minister's habit of appointing peers to his government - suggesting he can not find enough talent amongst his own record number of MPs.

Limited shelf-life

Transport minister Lord Macdonald is a particular target since he was effectively handed much of his boss John Prescott's portfolio.

But there are a dozen other peers - virtually one per department of state - currently in the top team.

And, of course, the row over Mr Ashcroft will have a limited shelf-life while the continuing controversy over Mr Blair's reforms of the upper Chamber will rumble on for the foreseeable future.

By appointing 20 New Labour peers, 9 Liberal Democrats and 4 Tories, Mr Blair is attempting to redress the political balance in the Lords and few will argue with that.

The aim is to get through pieces of legislation that, until now, have been defeated by the peers - Clause 28 being the most recent and most damaging example.

But many fear that, if this strategy works and life becomes easier for the prime minister as a result, he may get a taste for it.

And that could dash all hopes of an elected chamber, which would avoid embarrassments such as the Michael Ashcroft affair.

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See also:

30 Mar 00 | UK Politics
Anger over Ashcroft peerage
30 Mar 00 | UK Politics
The list of new working peers
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