Rifkind's shadowy fixer raises hackles among senior officers

Backroom Tory's career has run the gamut from bankruptcy in 1975 to life on a country estate with liveried servants
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David Hart operates in the nether world of British politics. Now you see him, now you don't.

A novelist and a millionaire, mainly through property development, but partly through an inherited fortune, he is friend to some of the most senior Tory politicians in Britain.

Once he is said to have aspired to ministerial office. But he has buried that ambition. His political views, which he calls "libertarian", are far from the mainstream of John Major's Conservatism. Privately, he is said to be highly critical of Mr Major's leadership. But he nevertheless wields great influence behind the scenes at Westminster.

His shadowy presence has inspired suspicion among politicians on both sides of the House since he rose to prominence in the mid-1980s, in the miners' strike. He acted as a link between Downing Street and British Coal and personally encouraged miners to defy their union and return to work.

To this end, he travelled the country by helicopter and based himself in a suite at Claridges for the duration of the strike

It was a long way from the dark days of 1975 when the then 31-year-old entrepreneur was bankrupted. The court heard the young property developer ran a fleet of cars, a couple of families, and commuted by helicopter between his house and his estate. He still lives a lavish life. At his country estate near Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, he has liveried staff and a butler. He does not carry himself with a stiff, upper-crust demeanour, but is noted for his flamboyance, braces, and cigars.

He was close to Margaret Thatcher and is said to have helped to write some of her most important speeches, and to have been an important right- wing influence on her thinking.

His aggressive, often insensitive, treatment of critics in the party made him enemies. When Mrs Thatcher fell from power, Mr Hart transferred his attentions to three friends in the senior ranks of the party, Michael Portillo, Jonathan Aitken and Malcolm Rifkind, Secretary of State for Defence.

Mr Rifkind put Mr Hart back into the limelight by appointing him in July 1993 as an unpaid adviser. His first job was to force through cost reforms in the MoD. He quickly raised the hackles of many top officers who flinched at his talk of incompetence and waste. He believed too much was spent on administration and not enough on frontline capability.

Mr Rifkind then surprised civil servants by placing Mr Hart in charge of the privatisation of MoD housing stock.