Party funding row heard in Commons

Hopes of achieving cross-party consensus on party funding reform appeared less likely last night after heated scenes in the House of Commons.

The Conservatives argued the anonymous donor row had eroded public trust in democracy while Labour MPs attempted to shift a share of the scandal on to the Tories by questioning Lord Ashcroft’s position as the party’s bankroller.

Francis Maude, Conservative party chairman, gave short shrift to criticisms from Labour MPs, with a Met investigation into their party’s funding now ongoing.

He told the Labour benches: “There is only one party whose leaders has admitted that the law was broken and just in case he hasn’t got the message: it is your party.”

But he said he could “confirm unequivocally” that all donations made by Lord Ashcroft were “entirely permissible”.

Mr Maude went on to question Labour’s official account of who knew David Abrahams was donating to the party through intermediaries and who failed to register the true source of the donations.

The Tory chairman said it was “literally incredible” for senior officials to claim not to have known £650,000 had been unlawfully donated to the party through proxies.

Mr Maude said the issue of donor identity and transparency had been a “central feature” of new laws on party funding and not “some obscure rule”.

A Conservative motion, that noted “with concern the corrosion of public trust in democracy following the recent succession of scandals” over funding, was defeated by 310 votes to 160.

A government amendment, which regretted a comprehensive reform package was defeated because the Tories walked out of talks, was passed by 300 votes to 198.

Justice secretary Jack Straw said a white paper on party funding reform was being prepared and would be published shortly.

He blamed the Conservatives for the breakdown of past talks. The Tories maintain Labour made negotiations impossible by refusing to agree a cap on trade union donations.

Mr Straw was heavily criticised in the Commons chamber for his admission he did not know when the £650,000 would be repaid to Mr Abrahams.

The Tories’ Chris Grayling said it was a “breathtaking” admission from Mr Straw that he did not know when the money would leave Labour’s accounts.

Mr Grayling said: “This is further evidence of the complete chaos surrounding the government’s handling of the affair. Gordon Brown promised to repay the money, but even those closest to him have no idea what is going on.”