Leader: Lord Ashcroft’s public service

In the demonology of the left, Michael Ashcroft ranks somewhere between Margaret Thatcher and Rupert Murdoch. The Conservative peer is still loathed by many as the man who sought, in the words of Peter Mandelson, to “steal the election” in 2010 for David Cameron. Yet since standing down as deputy Tory chairman that year, the self-made billionaire, profiled by Andrew Gimson on page 30, has emerged as a complex figure who defies easy caricature.

A prolific pollster, Lord Ashcroft has published detailed research in the past year on Ukip, the Labour Party, the Corby by-election and the lack of support for the Conservatives among ethnic minorities. Rather than reserving his findings for his own party, he makes them freely available on his website. As he wrote in the introduction to It’s Not You, It’s Them, a recent collection of his psephology, he publishes his research because he likes “to offer new evidence as to how voters see things, and to provoke discussion and debate”. It is a public service for which all parties are grateful.

With a better understanding of voters’ opinions than most elected politicians, the peer now specialises in delivering uncomfortable truths to the Tories. On the day Mr Cameron made his promise of an EU referendum, he warned that Europe “barely registers” on the public’s list of concerns and that it was time to “move the conversation on to what the voters want to discuss”. During last year’s Conservative conference, he denounced a poster featuring the slogan “Labour isn’t learning” as “daft” and “juvenile”.

Besides serving as the nation’s pollster-in-chief, he funds ConservativeHome, the website edited by Tim Montgomerie, the non-partisan PoliticsHome and Biteback Publishing, which issues many good books from both left and right. While those Labour and Liberal Democrat candidates who fell victim to his marginal seats operation may never forgive him, he remains a businessman dedicated to reminding politicians that, however much they might wish otherwise, they cannot dissolve the people.


Michael Ashcroft. Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The cheap food delusion

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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.