Ashcroft says: I will not quit as treasurer

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The Independent Online
MICHAEL ASHCROFT has no intention of quitting his post as the treasurer of the Tory party despite mounting speculation over his business dealings, he said yesterday.

The billionaire has been under pressure over his off-shore business empire after revelations in The Independent and The Times. But yesterday he said: "It's my intention to continue as the treasurer of the Conservative Party."

Mr Ashcroft confirmed that he had given pounds 3m in recent years to the Tories, but said the party remained pounds 4m in debt. He denied his presence as treasurer had allowed the Tories to get deeper into debt.

He told BBC radio: "I have been a contributor to the Conservative Party ever since the early days of Margaret Thatcher. In recent years, for the year ended 31 March '98, my related interests, which include me, gave pounds 1m, and when the accounts for the year ended 31 March '99 are produced it will be roughly of the same order.

"I would expect it to be of the same order for the current year that we are in," he said.

Giving his most exhaustive rebuttal so far of the allegations surrounding his financial dealings, Mr Ashcroft denied paying off previous debts or helping to secure existing debts. "The Conservative Party overdraft has not increased since the election; it was pounds 4m at the general election, it is pounds 4m today.

"I have never guaranteed any overdraft of the Conservative Party and I haven't paid off any debts other than part of which has come through the contributions (pounds 3m) that I have just mentioned to you."

William Hague continued to stand by Mr Ashcroft yesterday, even though the speculation about his dealings is blunting the Tories' attack on the Government at a time when Labour is at its most vulnerable since the general election.

Mr Ashcroft said he was "chasing down" claims he was mentioned in American Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) files into cocaine smuggling and money laundering in Belize. He said: "What I have managed to piece together so far is that that was something that terminated in 1992 and in which it was more a general look at Belize than me in particular, but we will track that down even further. I found that accusation absolutely outrageous."

Mr Ashcroft defended himself against other allegations. When it was put to him that he was made Belize's ambassador to the United Nations "as a result" of his financial support for the country's People's United Party he responded: "I don't tie the two together as closely as that. I wanted to be able to do a job for the country ... I went to school in Belize and therefore my roots run very deep for the country."

Andrew Neil, who conducted the Radio 5 Live interview, asked about the accusation, reported from a former British high commissioner to Belize, that Mr Ashcroft could not escape responsibility for making the country a "tempting target for drug runners". Mr Ashcroft said: "In Belize there is little cash in the system and the US dollar deposits that they do have are all cleared through the US federal reserve system so Belize is not the right place for anybody to go to attempt money laundering."

To the claim that he played a pivotal role in establishing the financial framework of Belize in return for tax breaks and other concessions, he replied: "No, those aren't necessarily linked but can conveniently be put together." He also denied the reported claims of British diplomats that he had stood in the way of reforms to Belize's offshore industry because it threatened his own business interests.