Tory Conference: Man with a golden touch who holds the key to Tory finance

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The Independent Online
WEAVING through the thronging crowds in the Bournemouth International Centre this week a tall, distinguished figure will attract little attention. Few of the delegates at the Conservative Party conference will have the faintest idea who he is, but they should be grateful to him.

Michael Ashcroft, the Tories' new treasurer, is bankrolling the party through its financial crisis. He does not court publicity and, say friends, will avoid the glitzy parties at the conference, choosing instead to meet just a few key people.

But there is little else that is colourless about this multi-millionaire tax exile. Here is a man who went to the dogs with the Princess of Wales, acted as ambassador to the European Union for Belize and blew a cool pounds 300,000 on a 50th birthday party at the Grosvenor House Hotel in London.

He is a man who jets between houses in Belgravia, Florida and Belize, and one who regards yachting at Cowes as tame, opting instead last year for a voyage from Belize to Alaska via Tierra del Fuego.

Mr Ashcroft's friends include Sir Denis Thatcher and Lord Parkinson, the Conservative Party chairman who hands over to Michael Ancram this week. At one time he was close to Paula Hamilton, the model made famous by a Volkswagen television commercial in which she threw away a fur coat but kept a set of car keys.

Even his closest friends confess to knowing little about Mr Ashcroft's background and, despite its professed new openness, the Tory party refuses to release any information about him. However, it is known that he is married for the second time and has two grown-up children from an earlier marriage.

Friends say they believe he went to grammar school in the South of England - though some reports say he was born in Belize - before training as an accountant and going to work for an industrial cleaning firm, which he went on to buy. By the age of 31 he had sold out to Reckitt & Colman, becoming a millionaire in the process.

No one seems to know precisely what Mr Ashcroft is worth. Last year he sold his Bermuda-based ADT corporation, a security and vehicle auction group, for pounds 154m. His main interests are in the Bank of Belize and a new corporation, Carlisle. The Belize connection led to the ambassador's post.

Nor are the Tories saying much, though they confirm he moved from being deputy to senior treasurer during the summer. He and his fellow treasurer, Sir Graham Kirkham, are believed to have underwritten the party's finances to the tune of pounds 16m over two years, and Mr Ashcroft has an office in its Smith Square headquarters.

Conservative officials dismiss as "utter rubbish" claims that Mr Ashcroft demanded William Hague, the Tory leader, move his own office into Smith Square to be nearer to him.

But if there is one thing Mr Ashcroft is not, it is a paid-up member of the Establishment. His talent for doing complex deals is regarded with suspicion in City circles, even one of his best friends describes his empire as "a complex web of trusts and investment companies" and acquaintances say he moved ADT from London to Bermuda to escape this criticism.

Steven Norris, the former transport minister and a longstanding friend of Mr Ashcroft, countered the charge that he was avoiding British tax: "What he would say to you is this. `I put my companies where it is most advantageous for me to put them. That is a totally legal practice and a totally sensible one.' It is typical of his inveterate iconoclasm." Mr Ashcroft is so rich he has no need to avoid British taxes, he added.

ADT was a major shareholder in his old friend and business associate Tony Berry's Blue Arrow company, which was at the centre of a share-dealing scandal in the Eighties. Inspectors from the Department of Trade and Industry criticised Mr Ashcroft for not disclosing all the information required under the Companies Act on his firm's ownership, leaving Blue Arrow unaware of his interest in part of Mr Berry's shareholding.

By the early Nineties he had started funding the Tories as a guarantor of the party's pounds 10m overdraft.

Michael Ashcroft's friends say his motivation is not the pursuit of respectability. They say he just loves to back an outsider.

Nor is Mr Ashcroft a man who thinks twice about giving away his money when the moment seems right. ADT funded a technology college in Wandsworth, south London, and the London Marathon, and he personally backs the Crimestoppers charity.

In her autobiography, Paula Hamilton described her first meeting with him at the Savoy.

"He walked over to my table. `Miss Hamilton. For two hundred pounds, will you dance with me?' I nearly slapped him but he then quickly added, `For your charity, Tusk Force'." Later, on his jet, Mr Ashcroft gave her a cheque for pounds 180,000. Later still, he paid for alcoholism treatment for her.

Mr Norris, who is now director general of the Road Haulage Association, says Mr Ashcroft is backing the Toriesbecause he believes in them. But he also thinks his friend enjoys being different from those sneering City types who have gone over to New Labour. "He likes to play a long shot. He's like the guy who backs Jamaica in the World Cup," he said.