Paradise in Belize turns sour for Ashcroft

New Prime Minister fires vicious salvo at Conservative Party's biggest donor

Michael Ashcroft, the Tory peer and donor who is masterminding a key part of David Cameron's election strategy, has been denounced in his adopted homeland of Belize for using his money to "subjugate an entire nation".

In an extraordinary attack, the Prime Minister of Belize accused Lord Ashcroft of being "predatory" and implied that he had subjected the former colony to "new age slavery".

"There will be no more suffering of this one man's campaign to subjugate an entire nation to his will," said Dean Barrow in a specially convened parliamentary debate called to renationalise the country's main telephone company, which was formerly owned by Mr Ashcroft.

The ferocity of the attack suggests that the Belize government is out to break Lord Ashcroft's influence in the country, which could lead to more attacks and embroil the Conservative vice-chairman in a series of controversies most unwelcome to Mr Cameron.

Mr Ashcroft's political links in Belize are with the People's United Party (PUP), which lost control in an election last year to Mr Barrow's United Democratic Party (UDP).

Lord Ashcroft founded his fortune in Belize, where his father was posted by the Foreign Office in the 1950s, and where his huge business empire formerly included almost the entire telecommunications network. He now devotes much of his time to his role as deputy chairman of the Conservative Party, and has a permanent office and staff at Tory campaign headquarters, though on his website he says: "If home is where the heart is, then my home is in Belize."

Yesterday, the Belize government seized control of Telemedia in a Bill rushed through Parliament, in the hope of ending a protracted legal dispute fought in law courts in Belize, the UK, the United States and Canada.

Mr Barrow, a 58-year-old lawyer and Belize's first black Prime Minister, introduced the Bill in an emotive speech which represented it as an attempt by a small nation to liberate itself from the overbearing influence of a billionaire.

"Lord Michael Ashcroft is an extremely powerful man. His net worth may well be equal to Belize's entire GDP. He is nobody to cross," he warned Belize's Parliament.

But he added: "This is our House, this is our country. Here we are masters, here we are sovereign. And with the full weight of that sovereignty we must now put an end to this disrespect, to this chance taking, to new age slavery.

"There will thus be no more Telemedia awards against us; no more Telemedia court battles; no more debilitating waste of government's energies and resources."

Lord Ashcroft's spokesman said yesterday that the peer no longer owns Telemedia, and that his name had been dragged into the controversy for purely political reasons. A statement issued by a charity called the Hayward Charitable Belize Trust said that it owned 70 per cent of Telemedia prior to nationalisation, with most of the rest of the shares held by the workforce.

"Michael has had no personal involvement in this," the spokesman said. "His involvement goes back some generations in corporate terms. The rest of it is just party politics. The fact that people try to drag him into this situation is indicative of the kind of party politics in Belize."

Telemedia was originally created as Belize Telecommunications Limited (BTL) when Mr Barrow's party was previously in power in 1987, to end the dominance of the UK telecoms group Cable & Wireless.

In 1992, the UDP lost control of the Belize government to the rival PUP, who sold BTL to Michael Ashcroft in a deal which Mr Barrow denounced as driven by "the predatory designs of one man, facilitated by the greed and hunger for cash of the then PUP administration".

Later, Lord Ashcroft relinquished control of the company. According to the statement by the Hayward Trust, he became involved again only because he was asked to by the government.

"They turned to Lord Ashcroft to find a solution to put an end to the complex litigation that they had got themselves into," the statement claimed. "Lord Ashcroft did not want to own Telemedia again and felt that there was an opportunity to make Telemedia an entity in which charities and employees could benefit. He used his skills over a long period of both time and attrition to achieve this objective."

The attack on Lord Ashcroft by Belize's Prime Minister echoed the feelings of Labour MPs struggling to hold on to marginal seats against candidates generously bankrolled by the billionaire Tory.

The Labour MP Gordon Prentice, who has campaigned to have Lord Ashcroft banned from making political donations in the UK until his tax status is cleared up, said yesterday evening: "I'm delighted that the change of government is bringing a wind of change to Belize. I just hope David Cameron is listening to what the Belize Prime Minister is saying."

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