Leading article: Hague's banker

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The Independent Online
CAN IT be Mr Michael Ashcroft's passing resemblance to Nick Leeson - those steel-rimmed specs, those chubby cheeks, that air of slightly bewildered hilarity - that has put Britain's financial and political communities on red alert? A miasma of suspicion now surrounds Ashcroft's business empire, and at its centre is a familiar concern: that the monetary health of a noble British institution has become entrusted to the unsupervised caprices of one man, half a world away, who may at any moment bring the institution crashing down. The last one to fall was Barings Bank. Will the next be the Conservative Party?

Mr Ashcroft has, as far as we know, done nothing wrong. He is an admirably successful businessman who relishes playing politics at a high level, and steering large amounts of his fortune into the funds of political parties, both left and right, both British and Belizean. But is he so politically flexible that he can back both the Conservative Party of Great Britain and the People's United Party of Belize (famously linked to the Socialist International) with equal zeal? He may turn out to be that all too rare phenomenon: a corporate raider who is also a philanthropist and a saint. If so, we sympathise with his trouble. But he has, we fear, had it.

It was an act of the utmost folly for the Conservative Party to entrust its financial future to a tax exile and foreign banker whose main contribution to the geopolitical map has been to make Belize (in the words of the former British High Commissioner) "a tempting target for gun-runners". It is a matter more of how you seem than what you're guilty of. The significance of this whole "scandal" is clear: Mr Ashcroft is Labour's revenge for Geoffrey Robinson.

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