Martyn McLaughlin: Piggate least of PM’s problems

Prime Minister David Cameron had allegations made against him. Picture: Getty
Prime Minister David Cameron had allegations made against him. Picture: Getty
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The salacious details in Lord Ashcroft’s book are not as revealing as the context of its creation - a revenge story about power, control and privilege, writes Martyn McLaughlin

WHATEVER truth lies behind the allegations that the Prime Minister did to a pig what his government is currently doing to the welfare state is immaterial to his reputation. In any age, the nature of the claims outlined by Lord Ashcroft in his unauthorised biography of David Cameron would prove a persistent bane on a political life, regardless of whether they are ultimately disproved.

Lord Michael Ashcroft book has caused quite a controversy. Picture: Getty

Lord Michael Ashcroft book has caused quite a controversy. Picture: Getty

In the era of social media and Photoshop, the half-life of even the most outrageous assertions stretch out into the ether’s infinity. Were Catherine the Great still with us, she would be well placed to reflect on the longevity of urban legends.

What is being called Piggate (personally, I prefer the Prosciutto Affair) has unsurprisingly sent Mr Cameron’s opponents into a state of mirthful apoplexy. It is a story that ticks every box in the checklist of those who abhor his ideology and his politics. The allegations point to an abuse of privilege and the ritualisation of humiliation. There have been previous tales from his Oxford days, of course, but none as grotesque or degrading as the pulled pork chapter, which further undermines his man of the people schtick.

The story is based on the one, unsubstantiated source, a flimsy body of evidence that, ordinarily, would not stand up an editor’s scrutiny. No matter. The veracity of the account is an irrelevance. Other than the disclosure of the PM’s penchant for Supertramp, the greatest embarrassment being foisted upon Downing Street stems not from the lurid details of the allegations themselves, rather the circumstances that led to them being aired.

Lord Ashcroft’s decision to publish demonstrates how the code of omertà that existed at Oxford has no place in the rough and tumble world of politics, least of all in the eyes of a graduate of Mid-Essex Technical College whose early millions were made in the cleaning and service industries.

The powerbase in the present cabinet may be largely drawn from a gilded group whose members look out for one another and take undergraduate indiscretions into their confidence, but occasionally, outsiders such as Ashcroft and their money prove too important not to be brought into the fold.

An uneasy alliance can be maintained as long as their appetite for power and influence is sated. Deny them, and ennobled billionaire allies can easily become enemies who squeal. Quite simply, Lord Ashcroft feels spurned and having denied the Conservatives exclusivity over his priceless polling data, he has reasserted his position as a more formidable enemy of Mr Cameron’s than any occupant of the Labour front benches. The coming days will hint at the full extent of the damage his perceived betrayal might inflict.

The pig story will continue to dominate discussion, but already the carefully selected extracts in the serialisation of Call Me Dave indicate the peer’s beef with Mr Cameron goes well beyond matters of pork. Other claims may not be as eyecatching or salacious as those hogging the headlines over the past 24 hours, but they are potentially even more ruinous.

Take Lord Ashcroft’s charge that the Tory leader knew as early as 2009 that he was a non-domicile who did not pay UK tax on his overseas earnings, but failed to make that clear; this explicitly contradicts Mr Cameron’s claim in March the following year, made via Dr Liam Fox, that he had only known about Lord Ashcroft’s financial circumstances for a month.

These are serious allegations that cannot simply be ignored by Mr Cameron and his press aides. Downing Street’s approach so far has been to try to undermine the book’s credibility without making specific on-the-record denials. The next 48 hours will stretch that strategy to its limits. The only ray of light in Mr Cameron’s camp is the fact parliament is in recess until 12 October. That at least buys Old Major from Manor Farm a few weeks to work on his pleading email for Jeremy Corbyn to read aloud at the next PMQs.

In the meantime, you can expect few other topics of conversation in CCHQ. The timing of the biography’s release gives the clearest sign of Lord Ashcroft’s intentions. That it comes a few months after the General Election so as to minimise the harm to the party is no coincidence. He says the publication is “not about settling scores” and he is right. It is about planting dynamite under the despatch box.

Revenge is a dish best served cold, perhaps with a dash of Cumberland sauce on the side, and despite Lord Ashcroft’s protestations to the contrary, this is a personal strike against Mr Cameron, the opening sortie of a campaign to bring his prime ministerialship to an early end. He knows Mr Cameron dare not embark on a course of libel action, even if, as I suspect, the mooted photographic evidence never sees the light of day. It is a calculated game of risk and he will be proven right.

The idea that this is an old fashioned power play was strengthened yesterday by the broad smirk that spread over the chancellor’s face when he was asked about the biography during a visit to China. He may not have read the book but he is well aware of who the primary beneficiaries will be of its release.

The explosive nature of the serialisation so far has seen some commentators describe Call Me Dave is the defining political biography of its generation. Again, that is to miss the point. It is not the contents of the book itself that are revelatory, but the context of its creation.

Its emergence is an instructive insight into the power, control and manipulation underpinning contemporary Conservative politics; a billionaire, unable to buy his way into a position of sufficient authority, wreaks vengeance on those who rejected him. You reap what you sow.