Ashcroft: 'I'll hunt down those behind smear campaign'

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The former Conservative Party treasurer Lord Ashcroft has said that he will pursue the people who he believes fuelled a smear campaign against him. Those accused include civil servants, MPs and officials in Downing Street.

The billionaire businessman said that he was prepared to stop at nothing to identify his detractors, who he claims were part of a "conspiracy" to ruin him in 1999. He said his battle to "clear the name" was progressing. He added that he would do "whatever it takes" to bring his targets, including Alastair Campbell, to court, if evidence was found that they had leaked confidential information to the media. In an interview with The Independent Lord Ashcroft warns people not to "underestimate" him.

The businessman has already won public apologies from the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development for implying that he was a "dodgy" character. In a court settlement, the Government admitted that it had made "various disobliging references" to him, which were "without foundation". But Lord Ashcroft said he was still "angry" and said that he would not cease his fight on a number of fronts until he had established "the truth of what really did happen during that period of time". Lord Ashcroft said the campaign against him reached the highest level of the Government and involved cabinet ministers. He blamed the Government and The Times, which settled a £100m libel action with him, for trying to undermine him while he was Tory treasurer under William Hague. He resigned in 2001.

He said there was a campaign that was designed to "get my scalp and force my resignation as treasurer". He added: "There were a lot of leaks - Downing Street was involved with the leaks of my peerage because there was no one else to be involved with the leaks other than Downing Street on that particular point."

Memos leaked to the press from Whitehall included details of his business activities in the tax haven of Belize and his suitability for a peerage. One leaked document mentioned his "laundry arrangements".

Clare Short, when International Development Secretary, pressed the government of Belize to clamp down on Lord Ashcroft's tax-free status.

He gave about £6m from his personal fortune to the Tory party and, as treasurer under Mr Hague, raised millions more from business backers.

Lord Ashcroft, who was enobled to the peerage in 2000, said he wasplanning to sue individuals for damages and press for prosecution against any civil servants who might be found to have been in contact with journalists for "malfeasance in public office".

He said: "We believe we know who the leakers are. Once I am able to get sufficient evidence then I will also move against the leakers."