Lord Ashcroft, 75, is a billionaire Tory peer and donor best known these days for his gossipy political biographies. He’s worth £1.26bn and made his fortune buying failing businesses and pumping up their value.
Hasn’t his name been in the papers recently?
Indeed. His son Andrew’s estranged partner, Jasmine Hartin, has been charged with the manslaughter of a policeman in the sunny tax haven of Belize. Hartin, 32, claims that Superintendent Henry Jemmott, who died of a gunshot wound to the head, was showing her how to use his revolver when the weapon went off by accident.
What does he have to do with Belize?
An awful lot: he’s been largely based in the country since the 1980s. He holds dual British-Belizean citizenship and was the country’s ambassador to the UN from 1998 to 2000. His influence is everywhere: he has at various times owned a Belizean bank, telecoms company and TV company, and his son is in Belize’s hotel and villa business. In February Lord Ashcroft senior paid $135,600 for a new gym at the Belizean police’s HQ. As the country’s prime minister once remarked, Ashworth’s “net worth may well be equal to Belize’s entire GDP. He is nobody to cross.”
Is it all about sun and favourable tax arrangements?
Lord Ashcroft has actually had a long relationship with the country. Although he was born in Chichester to “sturdy Lancastrians”, as he puts it, his father was a minor civil servant and the family were posted in Belize, then a British colony, for three years when he was a small boy. When his family moved to Africa, the 10-year-old Ashcroft was packed off to boarding school in Britain. He had his first taste of business selling doughnuts to schoolfriends. After a short spell managing a pop group called Trident, he bought a cleaning company for £1 (with a £15,000 loan) when he was still in his twenties. After five years he sold it for more than a million. He had a ruthless knack for buying failing businesses and pumping up their value: in 1997 he made £154m when he sold the American security firm ADT.
What did he do with the cash?
He converted some of it into political influence. He has donated more than £10m to the Tories; he was their treasurer from 1997 to 2001, then deputy chairman from 2005 to 2010. His closeness to successive Conservative opposition leaders – he has said he likes to “make sure that my investment is wisely placed” – led to The Times raising questions about his tax status and the legality of some of his business ventures. Ashcroft, comparing himself to “a lion stalking its prey”, sued for libel, and The Times printed a front-page apology in 1999, accepting that it had no evidence to support the allegations against him. Yet he wears his sinister reputation lightly: when he was likened to Bond villain Blofeld, he came into the office with a stuffed white cat. He was twice rejected for a peerage because of his non-dom status – when he finally became a lord in 2000, he mischievously suggested he should become “Baron Ashcroft of Belize”.
He has a sharp tongue, then?
Indeed. When David Cameron won the 2010 election, he didn’t give Ashcroft the plum job the donor says he was promised. The peer hit back with an unauthorised biography of the then PM, Call Me Dave, in 2015. Ashcroft joked that it was really an “obit”. Chief among its allegations was “Snoutgate” – a claim that during his initiation into the Piers Gaveston Society, an Oxford University drinking club, Cameron stuck his private parts into a severed pig’s head. A keen Thatcherite Tory from a humble background, Ashcroft has never been impressed by what he describes as the public school-obsessed “boorish arrogance” of the party’s crustier sections.
Is Ashcroft still a true-blue mover and shaker?
No. After resigning from the House of Lords in 2015, he moved into publishing and polling. He released a rather gushing biography of Rishi Sunak last year and has another in the works about Keir Starmer, due out next month. And he has poured millions into his polling operation, which he describes as a “hobby” and is free to access online.
Where else has the money gone?
He has donated tens of millions of pounds to charity, particularly to educational causes. He plans to give most of his wealth away rather than pass it to his three middle-aged children. (They’re from his first marriage. Both his former and current wife keep out of the public eye.) That said, he couldn’t resist telling the Labour party conference in 2013 that giving his money away meant he could remain a “proud tax avoider”.
What’s he up to these days?
He donated £100,000 to Shaun Bailey’s doomed London mayoral bid, and a company he is linked to won a £350m contract for Covid testing. Despite frequent tweets promoting his English sparkling wine venture, he has said nothing about his Hartin’s predicament. When a Mail reporter called on his white stucco house on Belize City’s seafront in June, no one was home. After being released on bail, Jasmine Hartin told Belizean TV that the Ashcrofts had abandoned her in jail and prevented her from speaking to the four-year-old twins she has with Andrew. She also claimed that Andrew pressured her into signing away shares in their joint hotel business. Intriguingly, just as the interview was airing, a video surfaced online of her confidently blasting a watermelon with a shotgun.
No wonder he’s lying low.