Lord Ashcroft: “The Prime Minister’s most damaging critic”

He's one of the Tories’ least understood assets. By pouring money into polling, he has given the party one of its most lethal weapons — but now will Michael Ashcroft unleash his power over information to destroy Cameron?

Michael Ashcroft. Illustration: Dan Murrell/NS

You are invited to read this free preview of the current New Statesman, on sale now. To purchase the full magazine - with our signature mix of opinion, longreads and arts coverage, plus a column by Anthony Seldon calling for Ed Balls to "fall on his sword", Michael Barrett's essay on the explorer David Livingstone and Adam Kirsch reviewing James Lasdun's stalking memoir - please visit our subscription page.

Lord Ashcroft is a self-made man of colossal wealth who is said by some to wield greater influence over the Conservative Party than Lord Rothermere or Rupert Murdoch. Yet my experience of Ashcroft, dating back to the New Year drinks party given by him and his website ConservativeHome on 16 January, suggests he is also rather shy.

In the early stages of the party, I introduced myself to him as the journalist who had already applied to interview him for the New Statesman. Someone else assured the noble lord that he could rely on me to take a serious interest in his work as a pollster. Jason Cowley, the editor of this magazine, was on hand to emphasise that no kind of “hatchet job” was intended. I volunteered that I am some sort of Tory, and so could be presumed to be fairly harmless. Ashcroft agreed to be interviewed. An atmosphere of nervous convi - viality prevailed. Moments after we parted, I saw him attempt, with an expression of horror, to flee from another journalist, a Tory with one of the harshest tongues in London. The escape bid failed. It occurred to me that to be rich and powerful must sometimes have the drawback of making one attractive to people one does not really wish to see.

It turned out that Ashcroft did not really wish to see me. He asked me, during email exchanges conducted through a member of his team, to supply the questions I wished to put to him during the interview, and eventually replied to them at length and in writing (you can read the full exchange online here), but we did not meet again.

To obtain an expert opinion on Ashcroft’s polling, I rang Peter Kellner, the president of YouGov, who said: “I think the polling he does is terrific, really good, intelligent, openminded.” Kellner praised Smell the Coffee, the Tory peer’s 114-page inquiry into why the party lost the 2005 general election, as “a really intelligent analysis of the Conser - vative problems”.

The last paragraph of Smell the Coffee is a good example of how ferocious Ashcroft is prepared to be when discussing the faults of his own party:

So, faced with a government that had disappointed them and a prime minister [Tony Blair] they did not trust, why did people not vote in vast numbers for the party and the leader [Michael Howard] apparently in the best position to replace them? Our research over the last seven months shows the way towards the answers, not the least of which was that the Conservatives did not talk about the things that mattered to people in a way that showed that they recognised either their anxieties or their aspirations. But it would be a mistake to imagine that the issue is just one of presentation. The problem was not that millions of people thought the Conservative Party wasn’t like them and didn’t understand them; the problem was that they were right.

Many successful entrepreneurs have no insight into politics: in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, one of the jokes is that Lord Copper understands nothing, and even has to look up the date of the Battle of Hastings. Lord Ashcroft is not Lord Copper. Like his polling, his answers to my questions show that he understands a great deal, including the inadvisability for the Tories of devoting the next general election campaign to personal attacks on Ed Miliband.

In Minority Verdict, his examination of the 2010 election, he explains the “sheer pointlessness” of attacking Gordon Brown: even the excruciating Gillian Duffy episode, when the Labour leader was heard describing the pensioner to whom he had just been talking as a “bigoted woman”, had “absolutely no discernible impact on voting intention polls”. The Tories should have tried to win, not by pointing out Brown’s flaws, but by reassuring enough people that a Conservative government would do better.

Ashcroft’s written answers were full of good sense, but as a substitute for an actual conversation, in which one could follow the subject wherever it led, they were frustrating. He had closed the discussion down before it even got started. This guardedness is a deeply ingrained characteristic.

In his book Dirty Politics, Dirty Times (2005), which focuses on the battle which broke out between him and the Times in 1999 but also serves as his autobiography, he makes a distinction that is perhaps more apparent to him than to anyone else: “I am a private rather than a secretive man.” He also emphasises his “hands-on approach” to any organisation with which he is involved: “I was rarely, if ever, interested in being a passive investor . . . invariably, I was looking for outright control.”

This desire for outright control makes it difficult to get to know Ashcroft the man. Many Conservatives refrain from giving their candid opinion of him. He somehow induces normally quite talkative people to remain silent.

Michael Ashcroft’s parents were both only children from humble backgrounds in Lancashire. They met in 1944 at the Winter Gardens Ballroom in Blackpool, the town where his father, Eric, was convalescing after being wounded on D-Day. Soon after Michael’s birth in March 1946 Eric, who had left school at 14, joined the Colonial Office, which had dropped its usual insistence on a university education. He was posted first to Nyasaland (now Malawi) and then to British Honduras (now Belize). One may guess that Ashcroft’s parents sometimes suffered from the petty snobberies of colonial life, and that this may lie at the root of his passionate outbursts against “a tiny section of the Old Guard” of the Tory party, who display “boorish arrogance [and] an insistence on being exclusive rather than inclusive” and who value “blood and one’s public school above intelligence, ability and achievement”.

When Michael was ten, his parents and younger sister moved to Nigeria, while he came home to board at Norwich School. He found this separation hard and did not thrive. But at the age of 12 he found a shop that sold doughnuts for a halfpenny less than those on sale directly opposite the school, and embarked on what he calls his “first profit-making exercise”. When his friends wanted doughnuts, he would offer to go and get them and would obtain them from the lower-cost supplier, which enabled him to get his own doughnut free: “Although I was not being 100 per cent open about my activities, I was not doing my friends down because in their hunger they were very happy to pay the going rate of 3d per doughnut from the shop next to the school . . . I looked upon it simply as working to find an edge, the sort of advantage that I would search for time and again in my adult working life.”

The young Ashcroft transferred to the Royal Grammar School, High Wycombe, where he passed maths A-level but failed physics and chemistry, after which he read business studies at Mid-Essex Technical College. He discovered he had “a near-photographic memory” that enabled him to memorise a pack of cards and to predict, as he turned them over one by one, which would come up next. In the early 1970s he began buying and selling cleaning companies with such success that he was soon very rich. In the 1980s his interests spread to the United States and to his childhood home of Belize. He worked immensely hard – “16-hour days seven days a week were the norm” – and displayed a voracious appetite for the knowledge he needed.

From the first, he divided those he worked with into the “home team”, bound together “through thick and thin” by unbreakable ties of loyalty, and the “away team”.

Ashcroft developed an increasing interest in politics. He made his first donation, of £50,000, to the Conservatives in 1981, and by the time of Margaret Thatcher’s overthrow in late 1990 he had given the party £1m in total and lent it another £3m. He was so unimpressed by the new leader, John Major, that he insisted on the repayment of the £3m, “which, I know, caused some inconvenience”.

He got on extremely well, however, with the next leader, William Hague. “From the day we met, William and I have enjoyed a certain mutual chemistry.” In 1998, Ashcroft became treasurer of the Conservative Party, a role he kept until 2001.

In 1999, the Times began to run stories about his activities in Belize. Ashcroft sued for libel and secured a front-page statement which said that the paper had “no evidence that Mr Ashcroft or any of his companies have ever been suspected of money-laundering or drug-related crimes”. In 2000, on Hague’s recommendation, he was appointed a life peer, an award earlier obstructed by the honours scrutiny committee.

For many years after this, controversy continued about whether Ashcroft was paying UK tax, until in March 2010 he announced that he was not domiciled here. It is not hard to see why, in the years after 1997 when New Labour was riding high, Ashcroft was suspected of treating the Tory party like a company that he could buy up cheap and restore to profitability by running it in a more businesslike fashion.

What may be called Ashcroft’s second political career, and the one that is now of greater significance, began almost by accident in late 2004 when he commissioned some polling in order to demolish the overoptimistic view taken by Maurice Saatchi, then co-chairman of the Tories, of the party’s chances in its target seats. As Ashcroft relates: “Almost overnight I became fascinated by polling and by what could and could not be achieved by the process. In no time at all, I was a polling bore.”

As when he set out to master the business of buying and selling cleaning companies, Ashcroft works immensely hard at his poll - ing. “I can’t understand when he sleeps,” says an observer. The volume and quality of the polling are impressive, and it is more and more often cited by people who do not share his political outlook. His commentaries are published on ConservativeHome, in which he has owned a controlling interest since September 2009. (He also owns the nonpartisan PoliticsHome website and a 25 per cent share in the publisher Biteback, run by the Tory blogger and broadcaster Iain Dale.)

Just as the Army Rumour Service site is essential reading for anyone who wants to know what is going on inside the British army, so ConHome, founded and run by Tim Montgomerie, has become essential reading for anyone who wants to know what is happening inside the Tory party. There is no equivalent site on the left, perhaps because Labour has no one quite like the endlessly energetic, amiable, morally committed, traditional yet modernising Montgomerie.

ConHome works because it is unofficial but run by people with a very strong commitment to the Tory party and to winning a majority in 2015. It is sometimes possible, as Peter Oborne contended in June 2012, to describe it as “the Prime Minister’s most damaging critic”, but one might equally well say it acts as a valuable safety valve, enabling discontent to be vented and taken into account. The site works well because uniformity has not been imposed on its contributors: Montgomerie often disagrees with Ashcroft.

Yet there is a curious division in Ashcroft’s own writing. For much of the time he produces scrupulous commentaries based on his own polling, in order to warn the Tories that, for instance, talking endlessly about Europe will not win them a single extra vote. He also sometimes ventures to bring unwelcome polling evidence to Labour’s attention, as in November 2012 when he reported in Project Red Alert that Ed Miliband “is a factor preventing some people from switching to Labour. If this were not the case, Labour’s poll share would be above 50 per cent.”

But Ashcroft’s brickbats are far more often directed against his own party. From time to time, instead of dispassionate polling results, he vents scalding hot opinions of his own. In April 2012 he declared in a piece on ConservativeHome: “The main problem is not so much that people think the Conservative Party is heading in the wrong direction, it is that they are not sure where it is heading. And that includes me.”

Then in September he wrote an open letter to Justine Greening, the new International Development Secretary, saying: “you get to travel the world like a medieval potentate . . . you can spray around taxpayers’ money just like Tony Blair and Gordon Brown did . . . Many Conservatives are horrified by this. They think it morally wrong to carry on giving away such vast sums abroad . . . turn off the golden taps and stop flooding the developing world with our money . . .”

Ashcroft mentioned in this letter that he had visited 24 countries with Andrew Mit - chell while the latter was shadow development secretary. When I asked Mitchell what it had been like to travel the world with Ashcroft, he said: “He’s a very good friend of mine. He is brilliant company and has a tremendously wicked sense of humour which makes him all the more enjoyable to spend time with. He is a very good friend and a truly terrible enemy. He has an elephantine memory, which of course is even worse in an enemy, because it means he never forgets.”

I suggested there were occasions when Ashcroft might have been able to calm things down by striking a conciliatory note. He possesses many admirable qualities, including courage, but the ruthlessness with which he denounces those who have offended him is a bit off-putting. Life becomes a duel to the death; in Dirty Politics, Dirty Times he compares himself to “a lion stalking its prey” and quotes from a piece he wrote at the height of his battle against the Times: “Rest assured that I intend to keep my head well away from anybody’s trophy cabinet.” But the ferocity with which he fights his corner is perhaps another aspect of his shyness.

Some Tory MPs admire Ashcroft enormously, and say he helped to “galvanise” them and their local associations by closely controlling how they spent the money that he gave from 2003 to target-seat candidates of whom he personally approved. They cite occasions when he donated money to good causes as soon as he was asked to do so. Ashcroft’s philanthropy includes setting up Crimestoppers, of which he is still chairman. His alma mater Mid-Essex Technical College has become part of Anglia Ruskin University, of which he has been chancellor since 2001, and to which he donated the funds needed to set up the Lord Ashcroft International Business School. At the Imperial War Museum in London, he has funded the building of the Lord Ashcroft Gallery to display his collection of 177 Victoria Cross medals, the largest in the world, along with those the museum already held.

But some Tories resent his power and find him “ruthless” and “repellent”. They feel that he is “quite menacing in his personal dealings”, consider him a natural monopolist who wants to buy influence, and say he reminds them of “the villain in a Bond movie”. They reckon he is always “sizing you up and looking for your weaknesses”. Mitchell, who got caught in a media storm himself over what he said to police officers at the gates of Downing Street last September, admires Ashcroft’s fighting spirit: “You know when you’re caught in these media shit storms people react in different ways. He was very brave. He gets credit for facing the bullies in the press down.”

It will be fascinating to see what role ConservativeHome will play when there is another Tory leadership contest. But perhaps the next party leader will need to get away from opinion polling, or transcend it. For any leader who comes to imagine, even sub - consciously, that he or she is addressing a focus group, or who attempts never to say anything of which a focus group would disapprove, will soon begin to sound mealy mouthed.

In research published in October 2012, Ashcroft claimed to have identified “five distinct segments within the voting public”. In January, Cameron rejected this approach: “I don’t think my job is to try to identify different segments of people who are going this way or that way. My job is to steer the ship in the right direction.”

Ashcroft was made a privy councillor last September, as well as the government’s special representative for veterans’ transition – a suitable post, given his long interest in the field, but also one that suggests he is being kept at arm’s length from power. The Tory leadership regards him, not with fondness, but with foreboding, as a man who could do a great deal of damage.

Unless Cameron wins in 2015, his party will almost certainly decide to find a new leader. But the pollster and campaigner the Prime Minister has called to his side to help him win is Lynton Crosby. Ashcroft warned against choosing the rough-tongued Australian (profiled by me in the New Statesman of 9 November 2012), writing: “I believe it would be a mistake to hire Lynton Crosby . . . I don’t think he is needed and would become a distracting influence . . . a recipe for the kind of conflict and confusion that dogged the 2010 campaign and helped to cost us the majority we could have won.”

After Crosby’s appointment, Ashcroft congratulated him, sending him a seven-point campaign memo that ended with the words, “I’ll be following progress closely and will no doubt have more to say as things unfold.” No doubt he will. He urged Crosby to “be positive”, but already there are reports that Crosby has decided to “go negative”.

The Conservative Party is in a febrile state, loaded with parliamentarians who feel that their gifts have not received due recognition. It is easy to imagine that if Ashcroft gets enraged with the government at the same time as the voters he is polling, he could emerge as a tribune of the people: the man who can produce authoritative evidence that the party is being led to perdition by a clique of public school boys who will never win an election, because they are incapable of understanding people’s everyday concerns. Ashcroft the pollster is now a convincing enough figure to supply the ammunition that could destroy a prime minister.

Read the full interview between Lord Ashcroft and Andrew Gimson here

Andrew Gimson is the author of “Boris: the Rise of Boris Johnson” (Simon & Schuster, £7.99)