It was about 18 months ago when a senior figure in the Conservative Party warned me to keep an eye open for the activities of Michael Ashcroft. “He virtually owns the party now,” he told me, in the course of a long conversation about the Tories’ financial woes, “and I don’t think that’s frightfully healthy.”
It was not the first I had heard of the party’s current treasurer. It had been widely rumoured that, in the late 1980s, his formidable predecessor, Alistair McAlpine, had run the rule over him and found him wanting. Although he was not infallible, McAlpine had been around big business and high rollers long enough to know those who were likely to be spotless and those who were likely to be less so. It was said that he had advised the party then to keep its distance.
Now it has emerged that John Major was given similar advice. By the time William Hague became leader, though, the party felt it had to be far less fussy. Beggars, as the old saying goes, can’t be choosers. A vacuum was created, which Ashcroft readily filled. The trouble is that he did not just fill it as a fund-raiser: he filled it as funder.
Ashcroft himself has now admitted to putting £3 million into the party’s coffers. Some insiders think he speaks, on this occasion, with uncharacteristic understatement. But the party is still in dire financial straits. It haemorrhaged men with fat chequebooks during the Major disaster, and Hague soon saw off some of the remaining big donors, such as Lord Harris of Peckham, the carpet millionaire who fell out with Hague soon after campaigning robustly for his election as leader. Other political parties may be used to managing without large injections of cash; the Tories find it tricky.
In public and, apparently, in private, Hague is completely supportive of his treasurer. For a former management consultant who is supposed to know a thing or two about business, this is a slightly risky course to take. More than his political judgement might be deemed suspect if Ashcroft were to unravel.
Some senior Tories argue that the earlier reservations about having Ashcroft involved with the party – to do with what was deemed to be a lack of transparency in his affairs, his predilection for operating in under-regulated environments and a reputation for “sailing close to the wind” – were well founded. They also argue that Ashcroft, having been accused of some pretty hairy things in the last couple of weeks, with hints about drug smuggling, money laundering and selling Belize passports, ought by now to have done what most people in public life do in those circumstances: resign or issue a writ. They find the absence of legal action even more surprising now that the US government has denied that it had any information linking him to money laundering.
More fundamentally they point to the huge amounts of his own cash that Ashcroft has put into the party. He has done this, they argue, because the great deal-maker is actually no good as a fund-raiser but wishes to maintain his top-table place in the party. And they claim that the allegations about his past business practices and the high profile he now has are hardly calculated to encourage hitherto-reluctant donors to put their hands in their pockets. Once a treasurer is unable to attract donations other than from his own bank account he has ceased to be much use as a treasurer. It cannot but be unhealthy for a political party to be so dependent on one donor.
Older heads in the party also think that Hague should have taken more notice of the rejection of Ashcroft’s name for a peerage by the Political Honours Scrutiny Committee. The committee is a cross-party group of Privy Councillors and, on Privy Council terms, they receive all the information they need to make a decision. They are neither arbitrary nor partisan. To be turned down by them ought to provoke the sponsor of the proposed honorand – in this case, Hague – to ponder whether they might just be on to something.
Ashcroft is hated by the diminishing band of old-school Tories. They speak of him openly as a “spiv”, a barrow boy with no manners. His public whingeing about not getting his peerage is regarded by them as vulgar in the extreme; and he is further tainted with the stigma of many arrivistes who took the trouble to be involved socially with the late Princess of Wales. Even if he sticks around the Tory party, he will never be forgiven for such things by the more refined types who survive.
“Old money”, as we used to call it, has been a steadily declining proportion of the party’s funds ever since the Reform Act of 1832; but it has evaporated ever more speedily in recent years, and Ashcroft is the last person to attract it back. He has alienated not just the City but also a large swathe of business and now the historic backbone of the party; it is not hard to see that the potential donors who remain – hard-faced men who did well out of Thatcherism – are a pretty unlovely bunch whose motives for giving money to the Tories would bear great examination by the Labour Party.
When Hague failed to lift a finger to protect his former colleague Neil Hamilton, condemned by the Downey report, with no evidence that would have stood up in a court of law, Hague’s friends issued the following briefing: “Neil,” they said sniffily, and not very accurately, “seems to argue his innocence on the basis that his accusers can’t prove anything.”
The same seems true of the Ashcroft allegations. His accusers are invited to prove that he has done wrong. Only this time Hague is standing by him, in a way he conspicuously did not stand by Hamilton (who, of course, was not putting £3 million into the party’s funds at the time). The leader of the opposition does not seem much bothered that Ashcroft has caused his party’s name to be dragged through the mud, that he has reconnected it volubly in the public mind with notions of sleaze and that he has helped distract attention from Labour’s growing difficulties.
What Hague ought to focus on is a treasurer who, fairly or unfairly, does not seem to enjoy much confidence among the community of very rich people from whom he ought to be raising funds. He might be concerned, too, that when Labour is next exposed as having had dodgy dealings with a financial backer, it will be that little bit harder for the Tories to attack it.
Politics is deeply unfair, and quite often people do have to carry the can for faults that are perceived, rather than real. It doesn’t matter, in sheer political terms, that nothing can be “proved” where Ashcroft is concerned. He is politically useless to the Tories now, he won’t get his peerage this side of a huge victory in the libel courts and Hague would be much better off wishing him a fond farewell.
If, that is, he can find anyone else to pay the bills.
The writer, our Conservative Party correspondent, is a “Daily Mail” columnist