Outside a discreet but well-appointed house a few yards from Conservative Central Office, a Harrods bag stands waiting for the dustmen, a copy of the Financial Times tucked into its neck. A neat pile of builders' supplies hints at recent activity but behind the heavily swagged curtains, all is calm. The Ashcrofts have arrived.
The Tory party Treasurer and his wife Susie have not had far to travel from their former UK residence in nearby Belgravia, but the move has a certain symbolic significance. By moving to the Corner House in Great Peter Street, Westminster, Michael Ashcroft has placed himself both figuratively and physically at the heart of the British establishment.
When he bought the house a few months ago, the billionaire businessman might have had hopes of soon being renamed Lord Ashcroft. This week those hopes were dashed when it emerged that the all-party Honours Scrutiny Committee had rejected William Hague's nomination of his biggest donor for a life peerage amid public complaints that he was a tax exile who was regarded with suspicion by many in the city.
Precisely why Michael Ashcroft has chosen to pump millions into keeping the Conservative Party afloat in the midst of a post-defeat financial crisis remains something of a mystery. His friends deny that he seeks respectability, describing him as a maverick who simply loves to go against the grain. And anyway, they say, his wealth is so fantastic that even a reported pounds 360,000 monthly payment to the Tories would scarcely make a dent in his small change.
In some of society's upper strata, this tall, debonair businessman has already won acceptance. He is a friend of Sir Denis Thatcher and of Lord Parkinson, and once even went to the dogs with Diana, Princess of Wales. The board of his Crimestoppers charity is packed with the great and good, and for years his ADT security company was the main sponsor of the London marathon.
Several Conservative MPs have had links with Mr Ashcroft in the past. In 1990 he was persuaded by Kenneth Baker, then Tory party chairman, to fund a city technology college in Wandsworth, South London. Bowen Wells, MP for Hertford and Stortford and now chairman of the International Development Select Committee, was an adviser to Mr Ashcroft at one time and four others took a trip to the Caribbean at his expense in 1994.
In other quarters, though, there are dark mutterings about the extraordinary complexity of his business deals and about the fact that for many years his companies were all based offshore. The former Tory treasurer, Lord McAlpine, blocked his appointment to the Treasurer's post in 1990, and more recently some members of the powerful back-bench 1922 executive were said to be uncomfortable with his current role. Why, some people want to know, is the party being bankrolled by a man whose main home is in Florida, and who was recently appointed ambassador to the United Nations for Belize?
Michael Ashcroft's friends would say that he has suffered from the snobbery of those who do not like to see a former grammar-school boy achieve such success. But among those who are believed to have been reluctant to see him gain a central role in his party is another grammar-school alumnus, John Major. Both his backers and his enemies think that he is perhaps too clever by half.
He was born in Chichester in 1946, and his birth certificate gives his father's occupation as "textile salesman". But within a few years, Ashcroft senior achieved a career change that was to have a profound effect on his son's later life.
As a colonial civil servant he took his young family to Malawi and Belize, and although Michael later gained 10 O-levels and two A-levels at Norwich Grammar School, he formed a link with the Central American state that persists to this day. At school, significantly, he excelled at both rugby and chess. Instead of going on to university he opted for a Higher National Diploma course in business studies.
For the next eight years his career was unexceptional. After "the most boring two years of my life" as a trainee with Carreras, now part of Rothmans, he spent time managing a rock band, hitched around Europe and had a spell on the dole before joining a cleaning firm as assistant to the finance director. Then, aged 26, he borrowed pounds 15,000 from Barclays and started a cleaning business of his own. Four years later he sold out for pounds 1m to Reckitt and Colman, marking the start of a lifetime of deal-making.
From there, Ashcroft bought into a failing but stock-market-listed tentmaker called Hawley Goodall, which he used as an acquisition vehicle to buy companies in a wide range of different fields, including hi-fi, one-armed bandit operations, double- glazing and the Miss World competition.
In 1984, fed up with sniping from the City of London establishment about his business style, Mr Ashcroft moved Hawley to Bermuda where it bought out the American security company ADT in 1987 for pounds 635m.
The next few years were difficult ones. Investments in Christie's International and the British airports authority, BAA, did not go well and in the early Nineties ADT was accused of misrepresenting its profits by its largest shareholder, Laidlaw, in an action that was eventually settled. Mr Ashcroft also featured in a Department of Trade and Industry report into Blue Arrow, an employment agency run by his old friend Tony Berry, which was at the centre of one of the biggest City scandals of the Eighties.
But as well as having become involved with the British Conservative Party, the businessman had also seen the attractions of his childhood home, Belize. He bought its main bank and made generous political donations to the right-wing People's United Party, reported to add up to $1m (pounds 600,000) over the years.
He also supported legislation that gave his BHI Corporation a long-term tax exemption, and bought 25 per cent of Belize's telecommunications company and 20 per cent of one of its two citrus-fruit producers. He took dual British and Belize nationality, and at one time he was Belize representative at the European Union. Last year he was appointed the country's ambassador to the United Nations, giving him diplomatic immunity in the United States.
In 1997, Mr Ashcroft sold out ADT to an American group, Tyco, in which he retains a 0.5 per cent interest, worth pounds 195m. Although he is now listed as Britain's 14th richest man and is estimated to be worth about pounds 1bn, his appetite for wheeling and dealing has not diminished.
Last autumn Mr Ashcroft launched another campaign, becoming Tory party Treasurer at around the same time as he organised a new assault on the British stock market. Through the AIM-listed Carlisle holdings he led a bid, still ongoing, for Corporate Services Group, a troubled employment and training company that owns Blue Arrow. This fervour for acquisition, coupled with an apparent addiction to life on the edge, goes a long way towards explaining the conundrum that is Michael Ashcroft. One acquaintance described him as a "deal junkie", while another said his aggressive style had led him to be nicknamed "piranha".
Former colleagues, some of whom have experienced his more ruthless side, say he gets a kick out of putting one over on the other side in a boardroom battle. But despite his ability to keep three moves ahead of his opponents, he says he rarely holds formal meetings or writes letters, and he is said regularly to storm out of meetings.
One friend said Ashcroft was motivated by pure enjoyment. "He doesn't need ever to pick up the phone again to do a deal. The fact that he does means that Michael just loves it. And why not?" The same friend added his own explanation for the city's suspicion of Ashcroft's acquisitive style. "It is simply because they are not quite as clever as he is. `Clever' is almost a pejorative term in Britain, and that is something I think he would understand."
Despite all this, he seems to find plenty of time for enjoyment. He is known for generous entertainment of his friends, taking groups to events such as American football games and a Michael Jackson concert. He blew pounds 300,000 on a 50th birthday party at the Grosvenor House Hotel in London.
One of his passions is sailing, and in 1997 he took his yacht on a voyage from Belize to Alaska via Tierra del Fuego. He is said to be happily married to his second wife, his former secretary. His two children, both from his first marriage, are in their twenties.
At one time he was friendly with the model Paula Hamilton, made famous by a series of Volkswagen television commercials in the Eighties. In her autobiography, she described her first meeting with him at the Savoy: "He walked over to my table. `Miss Hamilton. For pounds 200, 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.
Politically, Mr Ashcroft remains something of an enigma. That he is a free-marketeer goes without saying, but beyond that, friends say simply that he backs William Hague's policies.
His Belize connections have led him into some interesting political affiliations, though. Fortunately, the UK was on the same side as Belize in this year's "banana wars" with the US and so no conflict of interest arose. But his mission to the UN recently backed a series of anti-nuclear motions that were opposed by the UK, and also contradicted Conservative Party policy on the subject.
Such anomalies have ensured that despite a secretive business style and a dislike of the press, Mr Ashcroft will remain as firmly in the public eye as he has been for more than a decade. Steven Norris, a former transport minister and long-term friend, says he is unfazed by hostile publicity and cares little what others think. With what Alan Clark once spoke of as "fuck-off money", he can afford to go his own way.
"I think these people who assumed Michael wanted to buy himself a peerage misunderstood the chap. I don't think he gives a damn. Michael has always been a natural salmon in life's great river - he loves swimming against the tide."
A Concise History
Origins: Born March 1946 in Chichester, West Sussex
Education: Schools in Malawi and Belize, followed by Norwich Grammar School. 10 O-levels, 2 A-levels, followed by an HND in business studies
Resides: Boca Raton, Florida; Great Peter Street, Westminster
Family: Married to his former secretary, Susie. Two children, now grown up, from his first marriage
Friends: Cecil Parkinson, Denis Thatcher, former Volkswagen TV ad model Paula Hamilton (pictured). Once went to the dogs with Diana, Princess of Wales
Hobbies: Yachting; collecting Victoria Crosses
On women: "I always say the best place for a woman is either in the kitchen or in the bedroom, and they shouldn't spend too much time between the two"
The diplomat: "He's a bit like the Scarlet Pimpernel. Nobody ever knows where he is." - A spokeswoman for the Belize High Commission in London
The businessman: "He likes to play a long shot. He's like the guy who backs Jamaica in the World Cup." Steven Norris, former Transport Minister
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