Peter Cruddas, the former Conservative Party Treasurer, has received yet another boost in his on-going legal battle to clear his name.
Mr Cruddas was awarded earlier this week £45,000 in damages (plus costs) against Mark Adams, the lobbyist and blogger, whose original tip to The Sunday Times led to their undercover investigation against him. Mr Adams has publicly apologised for wrongly – and repeatedly – accusing Mr Cruddas of breaking the law relating to political donations. The full judgement is here.
The comments from the High Court judge presiding over the hearing must have been music to the ears of Mr Cruddas, who is fighting a determined campaign to restore his name.
However, the very same comments from Mr Justice Eady are embarrassing for the Conservative Party which dumped its Treasurer with great haste within hours of the paper’s “revelations” last year.
Mr Justice Eady said: “I can thus legitimately record, without fear of contradiction, that the allegations of criminality against Mr Cruddas were indeed false and that he is entitled to have his reputation vindicated in that respect.”
The judge added: “It emerges clearly from the transcript that Mr Cruddas did not suggest that donations could be made from a foreign source, or that the law could be circumvented by means of a ‘front’ company, but rather he emphasised that it would be necessary to be above board and that any donations would have to be compliant with English law.”
I disclosed in my blog of 25 July 2012 that Mr Cruddas, a wealthy self-made businessman, was suing Times Newspapers Ltd and two of its journalists, Jonathan Calvert and Heidi Blake, over stories 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.
Later, I questioned whether the party had been a little too hasty in forcing Mr Cruddas to resign within hours of the newspaper hitting the streets on the evening of Saturday 24 March. In addition, I suggested the party hierarchy had been amiss in not thanking him for his many years of hard work and substantial donations that he had given to the party.
In fact, David Cameron, no less, was one of those who had been quick to criticise Mr Cruddas back in March last year. The Prime Minister said: “This is not the way that we raise money in the Conservative Party, it shouldn’t have happened. It’s quite right that Peter Cruddas has resigned.”
In the aftermath of The Sunday Times’s story, the party set up an internal inquiry under Lord Gold to look into funding, in general, and the allegations against Mr Cruddas, in particular. This inquiry has since been put on hold.
Belatedly, however, Mr Adams has now apologised for his actions. In a public statement, he said: “I have to accept that I made an allegation that I could not then prove and, under the laws of the land, I am liable to pay damages to Mr Cruddas and bear the costs of his legal action. I’m sure you will understand that I won’t comment much on the case. It is however clear from his evidence in open court that Mr Cruddas is very aggrieved to have been told by the Prime Minister that his actions were ‘completely unacceptable’. “
Mr Cruddas has now been cleared of wrong doing by the Electoral Commission, the Metropolitan Police and a leading High Court judge. On top of this, The Independent newspaper has also apologised for its follow-up stories that accused him of acting illegally.
It will, of course, be up to a jury to determine whether The Sunday Times libelled Mr Cruddas. The paper will face allegations – which it is contesting – of “selective” editing and distorting the facts. The paper will insist, interestingly, that it never accused Mr Cruddas of breaking the law.
However, I would suggest that if the court does find in Mr Cruddas’s favour he will be entitled to substantial damages for the very considerable suffering he has received at the hands of the paper.
Also, the party may have to investigate and analyse its actions on the night of 24 March 2012. For I have no doubt that by forcing Mr Cruddas to resign – without properly establishing the facts of what had happened – it increased the harm to his reputation, and effectively gave the green light to the media and to individuals like Mark Adams to wade into him.
Was the party guilty of abandoning – even betraying – one of its most loyal supporters in his time of need? These are legitimate questions that, in time, may require measured answers.