Conservative party sources have denied that David Cameron was involved in a bizarre university dining club ritual involving a dead pig’s head.
Downing Street had earlier declined to comment on any of the allegations in a new unofficial biography by the former Tory donor Lord Ashcroft. But a party source later specifically denied the allegation that has caused the biggest stir – that Cameron was a member of the decadent Piers Gaveston club and allegedly put “a private part of his anatomy” into a dead pig’s mouth as part of an initiation rite.
Ashcroft admits he has a grudge against Cameron for passing him over for a significant government job but insists the claims were not motivated by a desire to settle scores.
Party sources initially said they did not recognise any of the allegations revealed by the Daily Mail, which is serialising the book, Call Me Dave. On Monday afternoon the same sources were more specific in their denial, saying the story about the pig head was “not true” and “nonsense” as Cameron was never a member of the Piers Gaveston club.
Downing Street has formally declined to comment on any of the allegations in the book, saying it “would not dignify” the claims.
The prime minister’s official spokeswoman said Ashcroft had himself set out his reasons for writing the book – a reference to No 10’s belief that the book was fuelled by a desire for personal revenge.
Downing Street also refused to say whether Cameron intended to sue Ashcroft for libel, or to discuss allegations that the prime minister knew about the peer’s non-domiciled tax status the year before it was publicly revealed.
Labour and the SNP called on the prime minister to clarify when he knew about Ashcroft’s tax status.
Ashcroft’s unofficial biography of Cameron makes a series of claims about his involvement in a drug-taking environment at university and his knowledge of the peer’s offshore tax status.
The publication of extracts in the Daily Mail, two weeks before the Tories’ autumn conference, is a sign of how far Ashcroft has fallen out with the prime minister, who is said not to have followed through on a promise to give him a significant job after the 2010 general election.
More allegations are expected to be revealed in the Daily Mail in the coming days and Ashcroft has also indicated he could write a further book about Cameron or update the forthcoming volume with stories about his time working for the party as deputy chairman.
The prime minister’s spokeswoman said: “The author has set out his reasons for writing the book. The PM is focused on running the country.”
She also said the issue of Ashcroft’s non-dom status predated this government, adding: “It is a line in the book and we are not going to comment on a book.”
The response from No 10 is clearly intended to kill interest in the book, rather than offer a specific denial.
Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP leader, said the allegations had “entertained the nation” but said he should clarify when he knew about Ashcroft’s tax status. She told Channel 4 News: “There was one serious allegation this morning that I think perhaps he does have to answer, and that was about the fact allegedly he knew about Lord Ashcroft’s non-dom status much earlier than he admitted to knowing about. That’s one that perhaps shouldn’t just be allowed to disappear into the ether with some of the more lewd ones.”
Jonathan Ashworth MP, Labour’s shadow minister without portfolio, said: “Lord Ashcroft stated today that he made the prime minister fully aware of his non-domiciled status in 2009. However in March 2010, when his status was made public, David Cameron said the full details were ‘only’ known by Lord Ashcroft and the Inland Revenue. Furthermore, his spokesperson confirmed that David Cameron was only made aware of the Peer’s status the previous month.
“The prime minister should immediately clarify exactly when he first knew of Lord Ashcroft’s non-domiciled status.”
Ashcroft wrote that he had a personal “beef” with Cameron because he had not given him a role in the coalition, claiming that Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat deputy prime minister, had blocked it. Cameron later reconsidered and offered Ashcroft a job as a junior whip in the Foreign Office.
Ashcroft wrote: “After putting my neck on the line for nearly 10 years – both as party treasurer under William Hague and as deputy chairman – and after ploughing some £8m into the party, I regarded this as a declinable offer. It would have been better had Cameron offered me nothing at all.”
In the book, co-written by the journalist Isabel Oakeshott, a friend university friend of Cameron’s said they had smoked cannabis occasionally while listening to Supertramp as part of a group called the Flam club.
James Delingpole, now a rightwing journalist, told the authors he took the drug with Cameron and another friend at his room at Christ Church college, Oxford. “My drug of choice was weed, and I smoked weed with Dave,” he reportedly said.
The book also alleges that Cameron knew in 2009 that Ashcroft had non-dom status, meaning the donor legally did not pay UK tax on overseas earnings.
When a row about this blew up in March 2010, just before the election, the prime minister claimed only to have been aware about it for less than a month
The allegations about the dead pig’s head come from an anonymous MP, who said he had seen photographic evidence of the incident. The MP told the authors that Cameron attended a dining club called Piers Gaveston, named after Edward II’s lover and known for its debauchery, as well as being part of the Bullingdon drinking club, which was notorious for trashing rooms.
Speaking to the biographers, one Tory MP said he had been asked to join the Bullingdon club but walked out of the first event in disgust and considered it was all about “despising poor people”.
The book does not provide any evidence of Cameron ever having been involved in any destruction at the Bullingdon club, and the individual who is said to have a photograph of the incident with the pig has not provided any corroboration.
Ashcroft gave millions to the Conservatives before the 2010 election. Relations deteriorated after he was not offered a big job, while the Conservatives were infuriated when Ashcroft published his detailed constituency polling in the run-up to 2015, arguing it helped other parties. The billionaire peer has now resigned from the House of Lords.
This article was written by Rowena Mason and Patrick Wintour, for theguardian.com on Monday 21st September 2015 18.01 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010