The Ashcroft Affair: Leaked FO memos cast doubt on reputation

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The Independent Online
MICHAEL ASHCROFT, the billionaire treasurer of the Conservative Party, has one major problem - the British Establishment does not trust him.

The publication this week of two deeply critical Foreign Office memorandums, from 1996 and 1997, on Mr Ashcroft will merely serve to reinforce his conviction that he has been the victim of snobbery perpetrated by those whose intellectual powers are inferior to his own.

As long ago as 1984, Mr Ashcroft moved his main business interests to the Bahamas after suffering suspicious comment from others in the City of London. Sources close to Mr Ashcroft suggest that his methods are novel, but in no way questionable. Other businessmen confronted by his supremely complex dealings have merely been baffled, they say.

"There's nothing he can do that will not be deemed controversial, because he is an innovator. He thinks of new techniques and different ways of doing things. There's never been a time in his career when there hasn't been some rumour or other," one source close to Mr Ashcroft said.

Friends of the businessman poured scorn on the Foreign Office officials whose deeply critical memorandums hit the headlines this week.

The leaked documents, deeply critical of Mr Ashcroft, came from the Belize High Commissioner and the head of the Foreign Office West India desk at the time. The first helped to block suggestions that the businessman should chair Caritag, a British-West Indian trade quango. Gordon Baker, the High Commissioner, wrote of rumours about Mr Ashcroft's business dealings which "cast a shadow over his reputation which ought not to be ignored". Charles Drace-Francis, now High Commissioner of Papua New Guinea, said Mr Ashcroft had threatened to get politicians in the Turks and Caicos Islands to cause trouble for the British government if he was not allowed to open a bank there.

One friend of Mr Ashcroft's said: "When you come to the peak of your career and you are High Commissioner of Belize or Papua New Guinea, you haven't been staggeringly successful and your grey matter can't be too high. High-flyers don't end up in places like that."

Mr Drace-Francis, in a wonderful piece of sneering diplomat-speak, described how Mr Ashcroft arrived for a breakfast meeting looking "hung-over" and took him to a "lower dive than usual."

Mr Ashcroft's friends said yesterday that he had been tired after an overnight flight and that the meeting in fact took place at the Lanesborough, one of London's top hotels.

They denied that the businessman had threatened to cause trouble if he was not allowed to open his bank in the Turks and Caicos, and added that he was approached about the Caritag job but "did not give it a second thought" when it went to someone else.

They also claimed that Mr Drace-Francis had been wined and dined by Mr Ashcroft on a number of occasions. The Foreign Office was unavailable for comment yesterday.

Although the businessman lives mainly in Florida, he now spends more time in Britain attending to the affairs of the Conservative Party. Attacks such as those that became public this week are unlikely to deter him from any of his business or political activities.

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