View all newsletters
Sign up to our newsletters

Support 110 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
7 February 2008

Taking the Michael

As the links between money and politics come under ever closer scrutiny, why is David Cameron so coy

By Martin Bright

Last April I wrote that the name of Michael Ashcroft sent a chill down the spine of Labour politicians. The multimillionaire peer and deputy chairman of the Conservative Party has had special responsibility for target seats and polling since December 2005. Just as Labour began to tear itself apart over the possibility of a Blairite candidate to stand against Gordon Brown for the leadership, the thought of the money that Ashcroft might raise to neutralise Labour marginals was creating an atmosphere of panic among MPs sitting on vulnerable majorities. Nine months on, Ashcroft has become something of an obsession for Labour. Some may feel the ruling party has more serious matters to worry about, such as the state of the economy or the ongoing crisis over its own donors. But it is right to raise the issue of Ashcroft’s influence because of what it says about the wider issue in British politics of money taking precedence over principle.

Since David Cameron took over the leadership of the Tories, Ashcroft – a self-made, business services tycoon who was once ambassador to the UN for the Caribbean state of Belize – has been a generous funder of the Conservatives. Nothing wrong with that, on the face of it. Under the present rules, donors are allowed to raise as much as they like for political parties as long as the sums are correctly disclosed.

Judging by office space at the Tories’ headquarters in Millbank alone, Ashcroft is now a more significant figure than Cameron himself. His influence cannot be overstated and senior Tories should also be concerned at what this says about the reality of Cameron’s internal reforms. It is telling that no less a figure than Lord Strathclyde told the Daily Telegraph‘s Rachel Sylvester on the record that “UK legislators ought to be resident in the UK”. That’s the Conservative leader in the Lords telling the most politically acute columnist on the house newspaper of the Tory party that people like Ashcroft should live in Britain if they want to have a role in its politics.

So why is the Conservative Party so coy about Lord Ashcroft’s residency status? Ask some straightforward questions and it is still difficult to find out exactly where he fits into the process. According to the Electoral Commission, Ashcroft donated to the party in his own name until 2002, when he switched to making donations through his company Bearwood Corporate Services, which has provided more than £2m to Conservative coffers. Again, there is nothing improper here. But why the change? Evidence passed to the New Statesman suggests that Ashcroft was registered as an overseas voter in his home town of Maidenhead in 1999 and 2000. He is also registered in Maidenhead as living overseas in 2002. He then appears to have dropped off the electoral register. This would suggest that he started making donations through his company because he was no longer a UK resident. Again, perfectly proper under the rules.

The trouble is that Ashcroft gave a “clear and unequivocal assurance” when he became a peer in 2000 that he would move his affairs to Britain. At a press conference last December, Cameron asserted: “I have no reasons to doubt that the undertakings he gave at the time are being met. I sought reassurance on that and have had that reassurance.” So where is Ashcroft registered? Further evidence passed to the NS suggests he is not registered in Westminster, where he is said to have his London home. It is still possible that he is registered elsewhere, but the Tory party has been silent on the matter.

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU

What then is going on? One clue may be found in a series of flights Ashcroft has personally funded for trips undertaken by Conservative frontbenchers. In February 2006, he paid for flights to Saudi Arabia and Oman for Liam Fox, the defence spokesman. These cost a total of £3,600. In October 2007 he provided Cameron and David Davis, the shadow home secretary, with flights home from the Rugby World Cup final.

It would be perfectly permissible for Ashcroft to fund these flights as a foreign donor as long as Fox, Cameron and Davis were travelling in their capacity as MPs or as representatives of the Conservative Party. A spokeswoman for Cameron said that the Tory leader had merely “hitched a lift” with Ashcroft back from Paris. All three flights were declared by the frontbenchers involved. The spokeswoman said Cameron would not be responding to Strathclyde’s remarks. Ashcroft’s private spokesman declined to comment.

Challenged only these past few days, Cameron again chose his words carefully: “What I think it’s right for me to do is those things that are within my control.” When pressed, he added: “I’ve answered the question about Lord Ashcroft many times before. He gave assurances at the time he was made a peer and I’ve sought reassurance that those assurances hold and have been given them, and I’m happy to leave it at that.”

Both answers are intriguing. Why are the activities of the Tory deputy chairman apparently not within the control of the party’s elected leader? And why is Cameron happy to leave it at that? If Ashcroft has registered to vote somewhere other than Maidenhead or Westminster, why not say? The issue would be killed off. If he has not, then that is no crime, nor does it necessarily break any electoral rules. But it does mean that Ashcroft’s assurances in 2000 counted for nothing.

Events suggest today’s Tories are not so different from the generation given such a kicking in 1997. Derek Conway’s payments to members of his family recall the abuses of the Major years. Meanwhile, George Osborne has quietly removed his children from their state primary and sent them to a fee-paying prep school, in a depressing confirmation of his disdain for the public sector. Yet, as symbols of Tory arrogance go, the Ashcroft set-up trumps Conway’s nepotism and even Osborne’s elitism. Labour is right to be worried, and so is Strathclyde. Cameron should be worried, too.

Content from our partners
Unlocking the potential of a national asset, St Pancras International
Time for Labour to turn the tide on children’s health
How can we deliver better rail journeys for customers?

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU