Published:


Lord AshcroftBy Lord
Ashcroft KCMG PC

As the public showdown between Peter Cruddas, the former Treasurer of
the Conservative Party, and The Sunday
Times
edges closer, there has been a significant development in the case.

Mr Justice Tugendhat, one of the country’s most formidable legal brains,
has delivered a judgment that could have a major bearing on the outcome of the
courtroom battle.

As I have detailed in previous blogs, Mr Cruddas, a wealthy businessman,
is suing the newspaper for libel and malicious falsehood – actions that are
listed to be heard in the High Court from as early as Monday, June 17.

It was agreed last month that the dispute would be heard by a judge
alone – rather than by a judge sitting with a jury. This meant, in turn, that
there could now be a preliminary hearing by a single judge to determine the
actual meaning of the words that Mr Cruddas has complained of.


This hearing took place over two days last month and Mr Justice Tugendhat,
a renowned expert on both libel and privacy issues, has today delivered his
ruling – an announcement that I strongly suspect has been welcomed by Mr
Cruddas and his legal team but not the newspaper and its lawyers.

Mr Justice Tugendhat is, incidentally, the same judge who, as recently
as last month, decided that Sally Bercow, the Speaker’s wife, had libelled Lord
McAlpine, another former party Treasurer, with an “insincere and ironical” seven-word
tweet relating to false allegations that he was a paedophile. The ruling leaves
Mrs Bercow, who has decided not to contest Lord McAlpine’s action in the light
of the judge’s comments, with a bill for damages and costs that could yet reach
£150,000.

Indeed it appears that the necessity to take legal action has rather
gone with “the turf” of being party Treasurer. I, myself, as party Treasurer
under William Hague’s leadership, was forced to sue The Times back in 1999 when the paper adopted underhand tactics in a
failed attempt to blacken my name. I wrote about this chapter of my life in my
book Dirty Politics, Dirty Times which
can be downloaded from www.lordashcroft.com .

Today Mr Justice Tugendhat ruled that the “claimant” (Mr Cruddas) and
his legal team are right when they say that the articles complained of, to all
intents and purposes, alleged that, in return for cash donations to the
Conservative Party, Mr Cruddas had corruptly offered for sale the opportunity
to influence Government policy and gain unfair advantage through secret meetings
with the Prime Minister and other ministers.

Furthermore, the judge ruled that the “natural and ordinary” meaning of
the articles was that the newspaper alleged that Mr Cruddas offered the
meetings even though he knew the source of the money for them meant he was in
breach of UK electoral law.

Finally, Mr Justice Tugendhat decided that the articles were meant to
suggest that Mr Cruddas was happy that foreign donors should use “deceptive
devices” to conceal the true source of the donation.

The rulings are potentially crucial to the libel hearing because, until
now, The Sunday Times has – amongst its
other defences – denied that its front-page story ever accused Mr Cruddas of
breaking the law.

The newspaper and its lawyers must decide how to proceed in the light of
what most observers will see a massive setback to their defence against Mr
Cruddas’s claims.

It is not beyond the realms of possibility that The Sunday Times may, right now – like Mrs Bercow following Mr Justice
Tugendhat’s earlier ruling – be considering an out-of-court settlement rather
than opting for a lengthy and costly public hearing.

On the other
hand, The Sunday Times may appeal
against Mr Justice Tugendhat's decision. The stakes are high and neither side
may back down.

I disclosed in my blog of 25 July 2012 that Mr Cruddas was suing Times Newspapers Ltd and
two of its journalists, Jonathan Calvert and Heidi Blake, over stories published
in March last year that alleged he had offered access to David Cameron in
return for large donations to the party.

Mr Cruddas had been the victim of an old-fashioned newspaper sting after
walking into a carefully-laid trap: the journalists set up a fake organisation,
with a fake website and other subterfuge, in order to meet him in the guise of
being prospective donors to the party. These journalists are the same two who
only this week ensnared three members of the House of Lords.

In subsequent blogs, I revealed that Mr Cruddas had won a series of
victories. In early May last year, the Electoral Commission revealed it was
taking no action against him.

In early September last year, the Metropolitan Police wrote to Mr
Cruddas confirming that it had concluded there was no evidence of criminal
conduct. Further legal victories followed
against first The Independent
and then Mark Adams, the lobbyist and blogger
who first worked with The Sunday Times
and later
repeatedly accused Mr Cruddas of acting illegally.

In my analysis of events, I have questioned whether the party hierarchy
was too hasty in forcing Mr Cruddas to resign as Treasurer on the evening that
the paper’s claims were published.

Mr Cruddas had made it clear from the very start that he did not accept
the paper’s account of what happened at their meetings and that he denied
acting improperly. Indeed, he later accused The
Sunday Times
of distorting the facts and being unfairly selective in the
editing of his quotes.

It would, of
course, be deeply embarrassing for the newspaper, which last year acclaimed a
great scoop as well as a leading political scalp, if Mr Cruddas were to win his
actions for libel and malicious falsehood. But the embarrassment would not be
theirs alone: the Conservative Party would be forced to reflect that it had
effectively sacked a competent, loyal and hard-working Treasurer even though he
had done nothing wrong.

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