A tycoon at war: not a pretty sight

The grubby interactions between money, politics and the media are dredged up in a revealing new book
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The Independent Online

Fortunately there is no space here to go into detail over the tortuous story which occurred in the post-sleaze era at the end of the 1990s, after Labour had come to power. You could read the book, but you won't (neither will I - life's too short), and it doesn't matter. Ashcroft doesn't need the money and The Mail on Sunday has run the good bits.

Briefly. William Hague, a former Tory leader, made Ashcroft party treasurer; Ashcroft made mega donations to the party; Hague put up Ashcroft for a peerage; Ashcroft was knocked back; nasty stories were put about concerning Ashcroft's fortune and his activities in Belize, where he was based. New Labour's spinsters spun the story towards The Times, then edited by Peter Stothard. Accepted conventional wisdom was that Alastair Campbell, then in charge of corporate communication at No 10, briefed his mate Tom Baldwin, then reporting politics for The Times. Ashcroft sued The Times - the allegations were serious - and Rupert Murdoch, owner of allegedly offending newspaper and acquaintance of Ashcroft, personally played a part in brokering a settlement best described as a goal-less draw. Ashcroft also took action against the Government over leaks from the Foreign Office about him, and this time it was Tony crony Lord Falconer who brokered the out of court deal.

You can see why it is important to Lord Ashcroft. He has written one of those cathartic books which gets it out of his system, or as he will tell friends, "sets the record straight". Those involved at the time will read it for nostalgic reasons, but they will all be members of Club Westminster or Bistro Former Fleet Street.

There is a long tradition of super-rich men who have dabbled in politics because they like titles, cuddling up to power, being where it's happening, mixing with the great and the good. A cheque is useful as an entry ticket. Names such as Maxwell and Goldsmith, Sainsbury and Saatchi, Archer ... and Ashcroft spring to mind. Because they are unelected and rich and often have quasi celebrity status, there is a certain media fascination for them. Prime ministers, and their wives, who like to construct courts around themselves, encourage such people.

Donations to political parties are an entirely proper subject for journalistic inquiry, and usually the donors find this hard to accept. They are by nature secretive men, particularly about the whereabouts and provenance of their personal fortunes, however wholesomely gained. Bernie Ecclestone - who bought a few years' worth of 200mph tobacco ads with a big donation to New Labour - is notoriously reticent about his fortune.

Ashcroft and his book are of interest only because they throw light - more like gloom - on the deeply depressing way money, politics and the media interact. It is really just another tale of our times, about power corrupting. There's nothing heroic about Ashcroft, and he doesn't make a very convincing victim.

But neither does one feel sympathy for those who set out to get him. The New Labour machine operated with the thuggish arrogance with which Walter Wolfgang is familiar, and used its friends in the media. Ashcroft reacted as massively rich men do, believing great wealth could protect him from inquiry; able, unlike most, to deploy fortunes against anyone who might question any aspect of his life. The press was prepared to be used by the machine. The power and wealth elite got together to sort things out quietly when writs were flying.

All very seedy. And it is instructive, if not very uplifting, to see what has happened since to the dramatis personae in the six or seven short years since Mr Ashcroft came to town.

Ashcroft is no longer party treasurer but spends huge sums of money on inquiries into why the Tories lost the last election - this tends to be an ongoing project. He eventually got his peerage.

Peter Stothard stopped being editor of The Times and became editor of The Times Literary Supplement. He got a knighthood.

William Hague got rid of the Tory leadership. He also got very rich.

Alastair Campbell left No 10 but is still in touch. This year he spun the British Lions in New Zealand, where they lost to the All Blacks every time.

The Times got a new editor - and got smaller.

Tom Baldwin left the lobby for a job in Washington - and got John Humphrys saying things he shouldn't have in an after-dinner speech.

Rupert Murdoch is getting on a bit.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield