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Friday, 31 March, 2000, 09:13 GMT 10:13 UK
Ashcroft: The Tories' troublesome tycoon
belize
Belize: Mr Ashcroft has great influence in his adopted home
British-born tycoon Michael Ashcroft was the Tory Party's most generous benefactor even before he became its treasurer in 1998

The 54-year-old tax exile has helped to rescue Conservative finances with vast donations, at one point stepping in to personally guarantee the Tory Party's overdraft at a time when Smith Square was reportedly 3m in the red.

A friend of the Thatcher family, this largesse has been funded by an immense personal fortune built up through ruthless deal-making, which has often shocked and unsettled the City of London.

Mr Ashcroft has also aroused controversy over his dealings in Belize, from where he has run much of his international financial empire since the early 1990s.


Michael Ashcroft
Mr Ashcroft: Genius for making deals
Mr Ashcroft has numerous business interests in the central American country.

He holds dual UK and Belize nationality and is also a "belonger", or citizen, of the Turks and Caicos Islands.

But while his business interests keep him in Florida for most of the year where he is a resident, he has denied that he is a tax exile, saying last year: "A tax exile is someone who goes to Monte Carlo for purely tax reasons. In my case it is where my business and family are."

So close are his ties with Belize, however, that he became the former British colony's ambassador to the European Union and its representative at the United Nations.

Political donations

However, some politicians in Belize say his influence does not stop there and that it is far from healthy.

Mr Ashcroft made large donations - rumoured to total about $1m - to the right-wing People's United Party (PUP) when it was in opposition.

In 1998 the PUP came to power after defeating the centre-left United Democratic Party (UDP) and subsequently introduced several pieces of legislation financially advantageous to Mr Ashcroft.

They included a law giving tax-exempt status to some companies including Mr Ashcroft's offshore holding company Belize Holding Inc (BHI).

The Ashcroft-owned Bank of Belize was also granted the exclusive right to set up offshore companies in Belize for US and UK citizens.

In an interview with a British newspaper, Manuel Esquivel, the UDP leader and Belize's former prime minister, urged UK voters to beware.

"What happened to us should be a lesson to you," he said.

Ashcroft rejects 'smears'

Mr Ashcroft's conduct in connection with the Turks and Caicos Islands, British dependent territory in the Caribbean, has also been criticised.


William Hague
William Hague has backed his treasurer to the hilt
Leaked Foreign Office memos have revealed that UK diplomats alleged that Mr Ashcroft had threatened to "stir up trouble" for Britain abroad if he was not allowed to open a bank on the islands.

Mr Ashcroft has rejected the allegations, claiming they were an attempt to "smear" his reputation.

Tory leader William Hague has also defended the integrity of his treasurer, denying that Mr Ashcroft has ever sought or been offered any concessions in party policy in return for his donations.

As Tory treasurer, responsible for fund raising, Mr Ashcroft is said to have widened the party's pool of donors and allowed it to recruit more staff.

Ruthless business genius

Mr Ashcroft is used to being the subject of public controversy.

The self-made millionaire has often hit the headlines because of his aggressive business methods which have have rankled the City's old guard.

However, even his critics would admit he has a genius for making deals.


ashcroft
Mr Ashcroft has faced intense media scrutiny
Mr Ashcroft made his first million at the age of 31 when he sold a cleaning company he had bought with a 15,000 loan five years earlier.

He then bought the Hawley Group, an ailing camping equipment manufacturer which he used as a vehicle to snap up a wide variety of companies.

In 1987 Mr Ashcroft bought the security and motor auctions group ADT for 635m. A decade later he sold it for 2.6bn, personally pocketing about 154m from the deal.

Media interest

While he shuns personal publicity, Mr Ashcroft's role in the Tory party attracted much attention last year.

There was sustained media interest in his business affairs and Tory donations.

He wrote at the time: "I have never made any secret of the fact that I am a substantial donor to the Conservatives.

"I started giving them financial support in the early 1980s because of my admiration for the policies of Margaret Thatcher and have continued to donate to her successors, John Major and William Hague.

"Over the years I have donated fairly significant amounts of money. I am happy to admit this; I give the money because I support the Tory principles of free markets and personal liberty. And I do not seek anything for myself beyond the return of a Conservative government.

"I am committed to continued giving. As the Tory Party treasurer, I am the chief fund-raiser, so I want to lead by example."

Charity work

During the interest in Mr Ashcroft's affairs, he was also forced to declare his British citizenship and disclosed that he is registered on the electoral roll in Maidenhead, Berks, where he used to live.

In December he settled a libel action against The Times newspaper out of court.

Although he has lived abroad for 15 years - a status he must end to satisfy the Political Honours Scrutiny Committee - Mr Ashcroft has founded two major charities, Crimestoppers and Action on Addiction, of which he is a major funder and trustee of both.

He also funds ADT City Technology College, in Wandsworth, south-west London, as well as two other schools, in Belize and the Turks and Caicos islands.

Last year he received an honorary doctorate from Anglia Polytechnic University where, when it was known as the Mid-Essex Tech, he gained his HND in business studies in 1964.

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30 Mar 00 | UK Politics
Anger over Ashcroft peerage
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