Lib Dem peer attacks Lord Offshore Ashcroft

by Stephen Tall on August 27, 2007

‘Ashcroft’s hold on party raises fears of Tory rift’ shouts the Telegraph headline, re-reporting the (month-old) news that top Tory peer, Michael Ashcroft, is directing and funding the party’s key seats strategy:

Tory concerns at the growing influence of Lord Ashcroft have been heightened by a memo to candidates from the billionaire peer instructing them on how to run their election campaigns. … Lord Ashcroft has moved into a large office in Conservative Campaign Headquarters in London’s Millbank from where he will run the party’s strategy for target seats.

As well as directing a -“professional field force” who report to him directly, the Tory deputy chairman is pouring money into a long list of the constituencies David Cameron must win to form a government. He is also conducting regular focus groups and private polling.

Opponents of Michael Ashcroft, who has donated more than £10 million to the Conservatives, claim that his dominance means the Tory command is now effectively split in two with Mr Cameron running one operation from his Commons office and Lord Ashcroft running a “mini empire” from Millbank. Some MPs fear the situation raises the prospect of a split in future.

Lord Ashcroft, estimated to be worth £800m, has long been a controversial figure. He has dual citizenship of the UK and Belize, and was made a peer by William Hague in 2000 without permanently living in Britain and paying full income tax.

Lib Dem peer Lord Oakeshott has attacked Lord Ashcroft’s latest move to assert control over the Tory election strategy: “The Tories are still taking money from Michael Ashcroft despite the controversy over his offshore situation, which is absolutely outrageous. How can Cameron claim to be socially responsible when he is letting him increase his own alternative power base?”

New Statesman editor John Kampfner recently highlighted Lord Ashcroft’s influential role in The Guardian:

The man Labour most fears is not Cameron but Michael Ashcroft. In April, the New Statesman reported figures that should send a chill down Labour spines. Of the 36 Tory gains last time around, 24 had been targeted by a consortium of high-value donors coordinated by Ashcroft, who is not only chief fundraiser but also party deputy chairman with special responsibility for target seats. And, as every election observer knows, elections are won and lost by a democratically unrepresentative number of floating voters in a small number of constituencies. It would not take a large swing for many of these seats to change hands.

The Conservatives have quietly been pouring money into them. Much of their work is below the radar – telephone and online canvassing. Thanks to Cameron’s early popularity and Labour’s demoralisation during the fag-end of the Blair era, the Tories have enjoyed a head start.