Ashcroft homes in on Smith Square

City People
JUST AS one senior Tory, Jonathan Aitken, moves out of the highly desirable environs of Smith Square, just round the corner from the Houses of Parliament, another, I gather, is moving in.

Michael Ashcroft (pictured), the billionaire financier, has bought a substantial property in the area and plans to take up residence there shortly. This presumably will go some way towards answering critics of his present tax-exile status. Despite being Treasurer of the Conservative party, and reportedly bankrolling its finances of late, Mr Ashcroft spends most of his time in Florida or Belize and is infrequently seen at Central Office on Smith Square.

Presumably all that will now change, together with his tax status. So where precisely is his new home? We should not, perhaps, disclose the exact address for security reasons, but I can assure readers that Mr Aitken has not sold up yet.

n SIR GEORGE Mathewson (pictured), chief executive of Royal Bank of Scotland, must have been more than a little alarmed when he turned to the business pages of the International Herald Tribune recently.

There he was, prominently pictured against a cut-out of the homophobic TV evangelist, the Rev Pat Robertson. He was even captioned as "CEO of the embattled bank" and to add insult to injury, Royal Bank's logo was used to anchor the story.

The Tribune was, of course, writing about Bank of Scotland's disastrous relationship with the good Rev, not Royal Bank's. An easy mistake to make, as they say.

n INTERESTING JOB, but not for the fainthearted. The Institute of Food Research is looking for a new director to replace Professor Peter Schroeder, who joined the organisation from Nestle last year. The Institute is one of the UK's key research outfits investigating the safety of GM foods and the job is, according to headhunter Russell Reynolds Associates, "a challenging position".

n THE LABOUR friendly chairman of Granada, Gerry Robinson, was more than a little discomfited yesterday when asked at the group's interim results presentation to comment on the suitability or otherwise of Labour Party financial backer Greg Dyke - at present the head of Pearson TV - as the next director general of the BBC.

"It's an area where I'm not going to be drawn," he said.

Surprisingly, Mr Robinson didn't let the matter rest there. "The whole issue should be who is the right person", something, he noted, recognised by Chris Smith, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, and the board of governors. "The independence of the BBC is hugely important," Mr Robinson added. "Political pressure from Labour or the Conservatives should not influence it."

The question is: does that amount to an endorsement for Mr Dyke?

n CITY PROPERTY analysts have been experiencing more than the usual amount of musical chairs as changes in the sector fuel a battle for the hottest analysts.

Latest to be poached is the entire property team at Commerzbank - John Atkins, Ray Jones and Carl Gough - who will soon be reappearing at HSBC. The respected trio fill a gaping hole at HSBC created months ago when JP Morgan poached its analysts Andrew Causer and Andrew Penny.

n Spotted in the interminable passport office queue: A Virgin pilot grounded by his inability to renew his passport. A new way for British Airways to win the battle of the skies?

n JON SNOW's recent Channel 4 debate may have found the Iron Lady guilty of betraying the British People, but as she celebrates the 20th anniversary of her arrival in Downing Street Margaret Thatcher (pictured) can take comfort from the fact that she's still tops in the City.

Asked who had the most positive influence on British business this century, a whacking 84 per cent of directors polled included her in their top three, while 47 per cent voted for her as first choice. The economist John Maynard Keynes came second in the personal popularity stakes - beating Richard Branson and John Harvey Jones - with 35 per cent of those voting for him placing him first.

Strangely, perhaps, given the conflict between Keynesian and monetarist economics, more than 80 per cent of those who voted for Keynes also included Thatch in their top three. Maybe it's that inclusive mindset we hear so much about.

n IT SEEMS that supporting the Dome is not something that companies are necessarily keen to brag about. One unlikely benefactor slipped through unnoticed last week when it emerged that the Laing Family Trust - of Laing Construction fame - stepped in at the last minute with a sizeable donation to save the embattled "Faith Zone".

Nonetheless the group, displaying an unusual shyness, was keen to play down its role. Is giving money to the Faith Zone that embarassing?