British businessman, philanthropist and Conservative politician
Michael Ashcroft is a self-made multi-millionaire entrepreneur who is commonly known as the Lord Ashcroft, since he has a life peerage as the Baron Ashcroft. He is currently the Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party and Treasurer of the International Democrat Union, is a citizen of both the United Kingdom and Belize, and also holds 'belonger' status in the Turks and Caicos Islands1. He is however perhaps best known as the billionaire peer who bankrolls the Conservative Party, and the man the Labour Party love to hate, and one of the most influential men in British politics today.
Early Life and Business Career
Michael Anthony Ashcroft was born in Chichester on the 4th March 1946, the son of a Frederic Parker Ashcroft and Mary Lavinia Long. Educated at the King Edward VI Grammar School in Norwich and the Royal Grammar School in High Wycombe, he later attended the Mid-Essex Technical College in Chelmsford where he completed a Higher National Diploma in business studies2. Having spent his holidays working as a postman and as "a great cocktail barman", he became a management trainee at Rothmans in 1967, although he found the work there "simply too boring", and left in 1972 to buy his own cleaning company courtesy of a £15,000 loan. Five years later he sold the cleaning company for £1.3 million and used the money to acquire the Hawley Group. At the time Hawly was not much more than a struggling chain of camping shops, but he transformed it into Britain's biggest video games distributor and used the company as a takeover vehicle to acquire a wide variety of businesses.
In the process he became, as the Daily Telegraph put it, "one of Britain's high-profile entrepreneurs of the Thatcher years", and as a result of a series of deals, particularly his purchase of the security and motor auctions group ADT for £635m in 1987, built up a £2 billion empire, which included British Car Auctions, Alpine double glazing as well as significant investments in the likes of BAA, Miss World, and Lotus cars. However his passion for ruthless deal-making, an alleged predilection for "opaque accounting" and so-called "aggressive business methods" were said to have unsettled the old guard of the City of London, and despite his success he was still viewed as something of an outsider by the British business establishment. He was therefore often regarded as something of a controversial figure, particularly when he made the decision to shift the domicile of ADT (as the combined Hawley-ADT group was renamed) to Bermuda in 1984, and thereafter became a tax exile himself who divided his time between his various homes in Britain, Belize and at Boca Raton, Florida. He eventually sold ADT to the American conglomerate Tyco International for $5.6 billion in 1997, a deal which valued his own twelve million ADT shares at some $350m. Although he remained as the chairman of ADT and became a director of Tyco International Ltd, he was no longer involved in day-to-day operations, and even this connection later ended in November 2002, when he resigned following a corruption scandal and lead the campaign to clean up the board.
His stake in British Car Auctions later went to Montague Private Equity for some £200 million, although Ashcroft retains an interest in various other businesses. According to the Financial Times of the 5th November 2007 Ashcroft is a major shareholder in the Corporate Services Group, the Digital Marketing Group, Global Heath Partner, Carlisle Group, OneSource, London Town, Mavinwood, BB Holdings and Watford Leisure, the company which owns Watford FC. These are however, only his publicly quoted investments; his website declares that he is always "seeking new investment opportunities with entrepreneurs who have good strategic plans and plenty of verve and enthusiasm", and he refuses to be drawn on his private investments.
Belize runs through my bones
Over the years Ashcroft has developed a particular connection with Belize, as the former colony of the British Honduras now calls itself. It seems that after the war his father became a civil servant and was posted to Belize in the 1950s and so the young Ashcroft spent part of his childhood there. He returned to visit Belize in 1982, and whilst others might have seen the country as a third world backwater, he "found its remoteness, its endless unspoilt coastline and its magnificent forests awe-inspiring" and "its people engaging and delightful". Ashcroft came to regard Belize as his home, obtained Belizean citizenship, and established Belize Holding Incorporated in 1987 as his main corporate vehicle, whilst he was also actively handing out money to local schools, sports centres, medical charities and the like.
Ashcroft was keen to see Belize develop as a significant offshore financial centre, and in so doing trod on a number of toes
Including those of the British Foreign Office, who had quite different ideas about how the former colony should develop its economy. Nevertheless Ashcroft began to develop his business interests in Belize, and at one time held a controlling interest in Belize Telecom, allegedly acquired at a "fire sale" price and the sold in 2003. As it turns out keeping track of Mr Ashcroft's various business interests is not that easy as he has a history of shuffling his business assets. His main Belizean company now appears to be known as BB Holdings Ltd (BBHL) (formerly Carlisle Holdings Limited), which is listed on the Alternative Investment Market (AIM) in the United Kingdom. BBHL's various European interests were demerged as the Carlisle Group in 2005 and its American interests similarly demerged as OneSource in 2006. BBHL's main business is now the Belize Bank Ltd which handles over forty per cent of the country's loans and deposits and was granted the exclusive right to set up offshore companies in Belize for US and UK citizens.
Ashcroft is believed to have made a significant donation (rumoured to be about $1m 3) to the People's United Party (PUP), which is to the right of the centre-left United Democratic Party (UDP), which helped the PUP win the 1998 elections, after which it introduced several pieces of legislation which it was claimed were financially advantageous to Ashcroft, in particular granting tax-exempt status to some companies including Ashcroft's. Since that time however, Ashcroft appears to have become less enamoured of the PUP leadership, and more sympathetic towards the UDP particularly as he has an established personal relationship he has with Dean Barrow, the leader of the UDP, whose law firm has represented his interests in Belize since 1989. Ashcroft now spreads his support between the PUP and the UDP on a candidate by candidate basis, and remains an influential figure (bearing in mind that country is home to around 260,000 people) and has been described as "Belizean politics' one thousand-pound gorilla". He was at one time Belize's Permanent Ambassador to the United Nations between 1998 and 2000 and remains as an economic adviser to the Belizean mission to the United States of America.
Treasurer of the Conservative Party
Although Ashcroft became a Young Conservative in his twenties this was largely "because it was a social club" and he only became active within the party during the Thatcher years. Indeed Ashcroft himself has spoken fondly of those times, and has claimed that it "was through Margaret's era that any wealth of mine was created. She opened the platforms for the new entrepreneurs of the Seventies and Eighties to operate and we are forever grateful." However although he was known to be a donor to party funds during the Thatcher and Major years, it wasn't until after the debacle of defeat in the General Election of 1997, that he came to public prominence in the United Kingdom.
With the election of William Hague as Leader of the Conservative Party, he appointed Ashcroft as Treasurer of the Conservative Party; and as the party's chief fund-raiser, it apparently became his aim was to "lead by example". Ashcroft thus emerged as the party's chief donor, being credited with rescuing the party from near bankruptcy with significant donations of cash, the provision of sundry services such as the use of aircraft and personnel and indeed interest free loans. Ashcroft's position in the party soon became a political issue, since there were those in the Labour Party who appeared to believe that there was some inherent conflict of interest in someone being both the treasurer of a political party and a significant donor to the same party, and claimed that Ashcroft had effectively 'bought' the Conservative Party.
In June 1999 The Times newspaper published a series of stories about Ashcroft, which raised questions about his business interests in Belize, his status as a tax exile, claims that he was seeking to buy influence in the party, and hints of his involvement in the laundering of drug money. These articles were the source of some controversy which reached a climax on the 21st July when Peter Bradley, Labour MP for The Wrekin, used the cloak of parliamentary privilege to allege that Ashcroft was linked to an investigation into drug trafficking, whilst on the same day the Times published a report that the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) held a file on Ashcroft, and claimed that they would not have gone to this trouble unless it was of "practical value" to its investigations. (The No Smoke Without Fire argument.) Naturally Ashcroft launched a libel action against the Times, and claimed that the whole thing was a dirty tricks campaign cooked up by the Labour government in cahoots with newspaper, and hired George Carman to put his case to the court. Although this promised to be the most high profile political libel action seen for a number of years, the dispute was later settled after a personal meeting between Ashcroft and Rupert Murdoch, the ultimate proprietor of The Times. Both sides agreed to pay their own costs and on the 9th December 1999 the Times issued a statement admitting that there was no evidence Ashcroft had been "suspected of money-laundering or drug-related crimes".
However this did not prove to be the end of the matter, as Ashcroft was keen to identify the culprits who he believed had been feeding disinformation to The Times. As it turned out, one of the sources used by the newspaper were indeed reports that they had obtained from the Drug Enforcement Administration, and during the course of the settlement negotiations Ashcroft's lawyers had sight of some of these documents, one of which carried an identity code. Ashcroft later made a complaint to the DEA about their leaking of information, and armed with the identity code the DEA rapidly identified the culprit as an analyst at their Atlanta, Georgia office named Jonathan Randel and established his connection to Toby Follett, a freelance journalist who had helped the Times on its Ashcroft articles. Although Randel claimed that he leaked the information out of concern that the DEA was ignoring Ashcroft in its investigation of money laundering, it was discovered that he had received payments worth more than $8,000 in August and September 1999 from News International, publisher of the Times, and had received further sums from Toby Follett. Since it was a felony for a US government employee to profit from the sale of government information, Randel was indicted on a number of charges and after the customary plea bargain was later sentenced to a year's imprisonment on the 9th January 2003.
The Guardian later managed to obtain its own copies of the relevant documents under the US Freedom of Information Act, and noted that the "reports make plain that ... Ashcroft has never been targeted as a suspected drug runner or money launderer". It did however note that these reports showed that the DEA was concerned about the effects of the International Business Companies Act 1990 which meant that anyone in the world could establish a company in Belize, and the fact that the Belize Bank held the monopoly over establishing companies for both UK and US nationals, meant that there was potentially a lack of government oversight which it believed could result in the Belize Bank allowing almost anyone to establish a company. 4
The Baron Ashcroft
It was the publicity given to these various concerns that probably explained why the Political Honours Scrutiny Committee (PHSC) rejected Ashcroft's name when he was nominated by William Hague for a peerage in 1999. In the following year, Hague again put forward Ashcroft's name, only to be rejected once more, although this time around Hague challenged the decision and Ashcroft's name was therefore included in the list of working peers announced on the 30th March 2000. The PHSC however took the rather unprecedented decision to impose a number of conditions on the award of the title, which required Ashcroft to resign his position as Belize's Permanent Ambassador to the United Nations, and promise to return to live in the United Kingdom and pay income tax. Ashcroft duly announced his resignation from his diplomatic post, and agreed to comply with the remaining conditions and was therefore created the Baron Ashcroft, of Chichester in the County of West Sussex on the 20th October 2000. (He had earlier said that he would adopt the title of Baron Ashcroft of Belize, a suggestion which the Sunday Telegraph described as "an extraordinary gesture of defiance to critics who oppose his peerage", and which Ashcroft later claimed was simply a joke.)
Nevertheless his elevation to the House of Lords annoyed a great number of people who regarded it as something rather scandalous, and that he had effectively purchased his title by donating to the Conservative Party. There were even some Conservatives prepared to join in with the chorus of condemnation, including Edward Heath who called it "a disgrace", whilst the Viscount Cranborne described it as "an affront to the dignity and standing" of Parliament. Presumably such people were just as annoyed when he was granted a knighthood in the Queen's Birthday Honours list in 2000, being made Knight Commander of the Order of St. Michael and St. George (KCMG) for public service to the community and country of Belize. (Having been nominated for that honour by the government of Belize.)
Ashcroft thereafter became the focus of a number of Labour attacks in the House of Commons, generally led by the aforementioned Peter Bradley. He was particularly concerned (for whatever reason) to ensure that Ashcroft had indeed complied with the conditions specified by the PHSC when his title was granted 5. On the 24th October 2000 Bradley was told by the then Cabinet Secretary, Richard Wilson that the PHSC "had satisfied itself that Lord Ashcroft had fulfilled his undertaking to take up permanent residence in the UK". This apparently didn't satisfy Bradley who made his own inquiries which failed to get anywhere and inspired him to make a complaint to the Parliamentary Ombudsman. Called on to investigate the matter Michael Buckley simply pointed out that "once a life peerage has been awarded it can only be withdrawn by an act of parliament. There would therefore have been no purpose in carrying out the kind of checks to which you refer." Despite hitting this particular buffer, the 'campaign' did not quite come to an end, as there have since been regular calls from various Labour politicians for Ashcroft to 'prove' that he lives in Britain and pays income tax, although to date not a single one has ever advanced any evidence to the contrary.
Yet another front in the Labour assault on Ashcroft was opened up shortly before the General Election of June 2001, when Clare Short, the Secretary of State for International Development announced that she launching a "clampdown" on the tax free status enjoyed by many in Belize. Although Ms Short was later to deny the suggestion, this was clearly seen in the press at the time as an attempt to 'get' Ashcroft. Short subsequently decided to suspend any debt relief due to Belize under the Commonwealth debt initiative until and unless tax relief to the evil Lord Ashcroft was terminated. The result was a very personal spat between Ashcroft and Short, and at one point Clare Short was forced to issue a letter denying that she had called him a "scumbag". As it turned out the Belize government refused to be coerced in this manner, and declined to alter its local tax regime. However despite what the papers said at the time Clare Short has since insisted that she had no "interest whatsoever in Lord Ashcroft" and wrote to The Independent in 2005 asserting that it was defamatory for anyone to suggest otherwise.
It had however been clear that the DEA was not The Times's only source of 'dirt' on Ashcroft in its series of 1999 articles, and there were suspicions (certainly from Ashcroft) himself, that the paper had been 'helped along' by his Labour opponents. On the 27th August 2002 Ashcroft launched case under the Data Protection Action against both the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development (DfID), but when the case eventually reached the High Court it was brought to a halt when an agreed settlement was reached on the 5th June 2003. The Government agreed to pay Ashcroft's costs estimated at £500,000 and issued a formal statement admitting that certain "disobliging references" contained within documents held by both the Foreign Office and the DfID were "without foundation" and that these documents had indeed been leaked to the media, although "the Government was not able to establish how the unauthorised disclosures to the media occurred". It was however suggested by The Guardian that the culprit was former high commissioner Charles Drace-Francis, and that he had resigned from the Foreign Office after a leak inquiry. It was in the aftermath of this court case that Ashcroft wrote Dirty politics, Dirty times: My fight with Wapping and New Labour, in which he elaborated on his allegation that the Times newspaper had collaborated with Labour spin doctors in a smear campaign against him. Given the Government's admission before the High Court in 2003 one can see that he might well have a point. And of course, one of the reasons why the Cash for Peerages scandal resounded so badly against the Labour Party, was that they stood 'convicted' of the very same accusation that they'd been hurling against Ashcroft and the Conservatives for a number of years previously.
The Cameron Years
Ashcroft gave up his post of Party Treasurer after William Hague resigned as leader in 2005 and scaled back his financial support to the Conservatives while Iain Duncan Smith was leader, although as soon as Michael Howard assumed command in 2004 he came forward with the offer of £2 million. Unfortunately it seems that Ashcroft wanted this money to be specifically used to support a list of preferred candidates fighting marginal seats rather than simply being paid into the general party funds. It was said that Howard was "furious" at this offer which he saw as a challenge to his own authority, and although Howard and Ashcroft later patched up their differences, it never seemed that the two were ever quite singing from the same hymn sheet. It certainly seemed as if Ashcroft remained to be convinced of Howard's overall strategy for the party, and during General Election campaign of 2005, he donated money directly to his own chosen list of candidates in a couple of dozen or so marginal seats, and so delivered most of the gains the party actually achieved at that election, despite sinking to yet another overall defeat.
Ashcroft also commissioned his own series of opinion polls using large sample sizes of 10,000 (compared to the normal 1,500), the results of which later formed the basis of Smell the Coffee: A Wakeup Call for the Conservative Party, in which he claimed that his polls provided the "depressingly accurate" prediction of yet another election defeat, and demonstrated that the Conservative Party had still failed to make much headway since 1997 in changing the public perception of the party. When David Cameron was later elected as leader he appointed Ashcroft to the party's management board, and then made him Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party in December 2005. It is certainly believed in some quarters that Cameron took on board many of the points raised by Ashcroft, and that much of his agenda is driven by Ashcroft's analysis of what needs to be done.
Ashcroft now has a suite of offices at Conservative campaign headquarters at Victoria in London, and heads a team of eighteen busily running the Target Seat campaign and opinion poll research on behalf of the party. It is this team that runs the Target Seats Fund which distinguishes between 'development seats', which the Conservatives might win, 'battleground seats' which they need to win, and 'early gains' which the party thinks it will definitely win, and funds them accordingly. Naturally this flow of funds to some 116 local Conservative associations which is spent on promoting their chosen candidate to the local electorate, has seriously displeased those mainly Labour MPs who currently hold these marginal seats who regard it as in someway 'unfair', notwithstanding the fact that all incumbent MPs have a taxpayer funded "communications allowance" of £10,000 to spend on promoting themselves to their constituents. Nevertheless it is rumoured that the Brown Government intends to introduce new rules on party funding to be outlined in a White Paper in early 2008 which will try to bring an end to this practice, whilst according to the Sunday Times of the 9th December 2007, Gordon Brown has re-engaged the services of former spin doctor Charlie Whelan who is said to be "digging up dirt" on Ashcroft (or at least trying to).
In common with many wealthy individuals Ashcroft has chosen to give away significant chunks of his fortune.
In the United Kingdom it was his money that established the ADT City Technology College in south London in 1991, which is now known as the Ashcroft Technology Academy, whilst in 1999 he donated £5 million to fund a new business school at Anglia Ruskin University which bears the name of the Ashcroft International Business School. (And perhaps helps explain why he has been the Chancellor of Anglia Ruskin University since November 2001.) In January 1988 he founded the Community Action Trust, an independent charity dedicated to the cause of finding criminals and solving crimes. Now known as Crimestoppers, Ashcroft remains as a significant donor and chairman of the board of trustees. He is also known to have made significant donations to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, the Victoria Cross and George Cross Association, the Disability Foundation, the Restoration of Appearance and Function Trust, Cliff Richard Tennis Foundation, and the Stroke Society. In the United States he has given money to the Carter Center and the Cleveland Clinic, whilst in Belize the Michael A Ashcroft foundation has funded the National Center for Art Education, the Ashcroft Stadium, the Kolbe Foundation, the Belize Library project and the Ashcroft School scholarship project in the Turks and Caicos Islands. The Ashcroft Foundation also recently joined forces with Environmental Investigation Agency and Caribbean Whale Friends to sponsor a television advertising campaign in the Caribbean to help protect whales. Not that Ashcroft himself claims to be an environmentalist, but rather says that "I just like whales" 6.
Who's Who 2008
lists his recreations as "Researching the Victoria Cross, entertaining friends, trying something new, messing about in boats". Apart from messing about aboard his 150ft motor yacht, the Atlantic Goose, he has over the years his money as helped him build up the world's largest collection of Victoria Crosses, and the Michael Ashcroft Trust
owns some 148 examples of the Victoria Cross
. Or did at one time, since ten of them were recently stolen in a smash and grab raid in New Zealand on the 2nd December 2007, and inspire Ashcroft to offer a reward of NZ $200,000 for their safe return. Ashcroft was also the author of Victoria Cross Heroes
(2006), and has financed a three part documentary series about the Victoria Cross which was screened on Channel Five in 2006, and has funded and distributed a teaching pack to British schools on the Victoria Cross.
Ashcroft married Wendy Mahoney in 1972 and has two sons and one daughter by this marriage. They were later divorced in 1984 and he remarried Susi Anstey in 1986, although generally speaking he prefers not to discuss his private life.
1 Belonger status in the Turks and Caicos Islands allows someone the freedom to live and work there as they please.
2 The Mid Essex Technical College and School of Art (established in 1935) merged with the Brentwood College of Education in 1976 to form the Chelmer Institute of Higher Education, which then became known as the Essex Institute of Higher Education in 1984. This institution merged in turn with the Cambridgeshire College of Arts in 1989 to become Anglia Higher Education College which became a Polytechnic in 1991 and then a University in 1992 and later adopted the name of the Anglia Ruskin University in 2005.
3 Although whether this is Belize dollars or US dollars wasn't clear from the BBC News report. The Belize dollar being pegged to the US Dollar on a two for one basis.
4 Here it is worth noting that documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act are routinely sanitised to remove the identity of any informants, whereas the copies that Randel provided to The Times weren't, thereby running the risk that the identity of said informants might leak into the public domain. This caused the DEA some embarassment, since fairly obviously the sort of people who take part in the drug trade often don't take kindly to being named, and explains why they jumped on Randel from a great height.
5 Of course there were those that pointed out that Peter Bradley was no saint and that he had once failed to disclose the fact that he was working as a consultant for Safeways whilst he was a local councilor voting against a planning application by their competitor Waitrose.
6 A number of Caribbean countries support whaling as a simple quid pro quo for Japanese aid, despite having no particular interest in whaling one way or another. The campaign seeks to mobilise public opinion against this practice.
- 'ASHCROFT', Who's Who 2008, A & C Black, 2008; online edn, Oxford University Press, Dec 2007
- The Lord Ashcroft KCMG
- Charles Pretzlik, Ashcroft agrees to ADT takeover by Tyco, Daily Telegraph, 18 March 1997
- Joe Murphy and Matthew d'Ancona, I don't pull Hague's strings, says feared Tory paymaster, Daily Telegraph, 20 June 1999
- Ashcroft: The Tories' troublesome tycoon, BBC News, July 15, 1999
- Tony Hyland, The case of British Tory Treasurer Michael Ashcroft: wealth, patronage and parliamentary politics,
4 August 1999
- The Guardian Special Report: Michael Ashcroft (which includes articles over the period from 03.04.2000 to 20.08.2001)
Ashcroft inquiry called off, BBC News, 27 August, 2002
Michael Sissons, Ashcroft and the Times questions that won't go away, Daily Telegraph, 06/02/2003
Lord Ashcroft's Victoria Cross Collection
- also the following websites:-