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October 07, 2005

Dirty politics, Dirty times - Michael Ashcroft

Posted by Harry Phibbs

Dirty politics, Dirty times: My fight with Wapping and New Labour
by Michael Ashcroft
Pp. 322. London: MAA, 2005
Hardback, 20

Harry Phibbs reviews Dirty politics, Dirty times, Michael Ashcroft's account of his battle with New Labour and The Times.

How billionaires made their money is always a source of fascination. Lord Ashcroft started as a ticket tout. Recounting his early entrepreneurial flourishes as a student at Mid-Essex Technical College he writes:

I discovered that only one cinema in central London had the rights to screen the live world-title boxing bout of Muhammad Ali, then known as Cassius Clay. Even more interestingly, I discovered that demand for seats outstripped the supply and that therefore the tickets fetched considerably more on the black market than their retail price. Always on the look-out for ways to supplement my student grant, I set myself up as a small-time ticket tout.
There's more:
I also managed a pop group called Trident whom I naturally hoped would become the equivalent in fame and wealth to the Beatles. Trident was a four-man rhythm 'n' blues band and my managerial role involved driving the group around in a battered green Transit-style van to their often less than packed gigs.
Dirty Politics, Dirty Times is a fascinating account of Michael Ashcroft's life with most of the space devoted to his period as Tory Treasurer and his battle with The Times and New Labour who mounted a massive effort to smear his name.

Most of his enemies must have forgotten about it all but here is Ashcroft wreaking vengeance, not least in the allegations he makes against his tormentors. He also offers a lengthy, meticulous but nonetheless enthralling account of the catalogue of dirty tricks against him - all the malicious and selective leaking, the lies, the muck raking, the unattributable briefings, the attempts to scupper his peerage. There is something refreshing about this counterblast being so open.

There have been suggestions that Ashcroft published his memoirs himself because commercial firms might have been nervous about libel actions from some of those he settles scores with. But Ashcroft tells me he mischievously considered sending the manuscript to Harper Collins, owned by Rupert Murdoch who also owns The Times, whose journalists take such a pasting in Ashcroft's tome. As Ashcroft put it:

Harper Collins say they operate independently of the newspapers, I did think that offering them my book would be quite a good test. But these days it is quite easy to publish a book so I just decided to get on with it.
Ashcroft says he has full evidence to back up all his claims. I do not, so I shall not repeat them all here. But I would mention that when I put them to some of The Times journalists concerned they declined to comment.

In his memoirs the former Tory Treasurer Lord Ashcroft makes clear that his role wasn't just fund raising but also keeping a grip on spending:

I made a point of bringing in the monthly expenses from one senior official which included a 400 bill from Stringfellow's nightclub in central London. I am no prude and I hope the official and those with him greatly enjoyed the lap-dancing entertainment that was on offer that night; however, I did not feel this was an appropriate use of Party funds. How could I ask supporters to work hard up and down the country, or to make donations, if this was the sort of activity that the party's income would be spent on? I will spare the official's blushes by not identifying him, but suffice to say he no longer works at Conservative Central Office.
He also settles a score with the Party's bankers. When the late Lord Younger left politics to run the Royal Bank of Scotland he found that one of the bank's customers was the Tory Party. According to Ashcroft the Bank proved more tolerant of the party under John Major than subsequently under William Hague:
During my time as Treasurer I had to put up with some harsh treatment from the Party's bankers, the Royal Bank of Scotland. The bank, which had allowed the party under John Major's leadership to build up an overdraft of 19 million, had initially capped the overdraft under William Hague's leadership at 4 million. Yet, shortly after I took over as Treasurer, the bank wanted to cap the overdraft at 2 million. After some lengthy and tense negotiating, the party won the right to reduce its overdraft by 250,000 a quarter, rather than overnight as the Bank had unrealistically demanded. I felt that the Royal Bank of Scotland's tactics were unnecessarily "hard ball"; they were neither generous with their interest rate nor slow to add fees to our account whenever they could.
Ashcroft claims that apart from his donations to the Party the three years he spent as Treasurer meant that he missed out on lots of money because of the time he spent on politics:
Although it is a difficult figure to quantify, I suspect that my three years as treasurer cost me more than 100 million in lost capital value: money that I would have made if I had retained tighter control over my businesses.
Despite his long standing financial backing for the Tories, (he says "well in excess of 10 million" over the years) Ashcroft sometimes found his business ambitions thwarted even when there was a Tory Government. He recalls his efforts to seize the British Airports Authority, buying an 8 per cent share in 1990:
With BAA we realised that with tens of millions of people annually travelling through airports there were new marketing opportunities. Although we were close to launching a hostile takeover bid for BAA there were political obstacles which could not be overcome. This was due to the Conservative Government holding a "golden" - or controlling - share as a condition of the privatisation of the company.
One gets the feeling that Ashcroft is a tough man to cross, although he often tries to make peace with his enemies (The Times journalist turned Tory MP Michael Gove is an example). But in this book he also comes across as an honest and fair man. His generosity and loyalty to the Conservative Party is quite extraordinary. His charity work - notably for Crimestoppers - is also impressive although the flirtation this led to with Diana, Princess of Wales, was pretty cringe making.

I wouldn't normally turn to a businessman for a cracking good read but this is an exception. I look forward to volume two.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist.

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