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Lord Ashcroft: Former Tory Treasurer Peter Cruddas receives major boost from judge’s ruling on his libel battle

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 .

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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