Lord Ashcroft has been an invaluable asset to the Conservative Party. He almost single-handedly prevented the Party from going bankrupt in the aftermath of 1997, personally writing cheques as bills fell due. He has also been an astute strategic mind. His pamphlet on what went wrong in 2005, Smell the Coffee, is a very clear-eyed analysis of why the Tories kept on losing the elections. It can be distilled into the following key messages:
- Target your resources;
- Campaign on things that matter, not the things you think ought to matter;
- ‘Core vote’ strategies drive away more people than they attract; and
- Seek professionals, women and aspirational voters.
Bang on, and a pretty good description of what the Cameron approach has been. The first point in particular has come to sum up Ashcroft’s perceived influence on the party, and why his name is anathema to Labour MPs. Labour MPs in the marginals in particular see the influence of Ashcroft at every turn and on every corner. He is the bogeyman for the left.
Which explains why they have pushed so hard, for so long, at any perceived weakness. Originally they tried to smear him (preposterously) as a drug-dealer, with the Times, in one of its least creditable hours, churning out statements to be read out by a Labour MP in the House, so as to rely on parliamentary privilege. Labour’s obsession with Lord Ashcroft can best be summed up by the fact that, after a FoI request, they were forced to disclose 3,700 documents. The motives of the Times in spending so much time and energy to discredit a man can only be put down to a very natural dislike of non-British residents having so much influence over British politics.
It’s hardly surprising then, that the ‘revelation’ that Lord Ashcroft is domiciled in Belize should have been seized on with such relish. In fairness, the presentational side of this entire affair has been lamentably managed. It was, albeit awkward, entirely reasonable to say that an individual’s tax status is a matter between him and HMRC, and that all Lord Ashcroft had to say was that he was acting entirely within the law. Once, however, the precise nature of the undertaking he had made before becoming a peer was due to be revealed after a FoI request, the only question that should have mattered was when to get this information out. The best time to have done would have been when another big story was taking up the headlines. Bullygate (gah) would have been a perfect day to bury bad news, as Jo Moore might have said.
The substance of the story, however, and its reporting have been a disgrace. Lord Ashcroft undertook to become resident in the UK for tax purposes. He has done so. And that, pretty much, is where the story ought to end. He had no need, at the time that he did so, to become UK resident in order to remain a Conservative donor, nor a party official. All that is needed for that is to be UK citizen and qualified to vote, both of which he was. Nor does one need to be a UK resident (or even a citizen) to play a key role in determining party strategy. How many articles called for Lynton Crosby to be fired in 2005? Here was a man who wasn’t even British playing a key role at the heart of Tory election strategy. Who cared? Nobody. Does anyone care that Bob Shrum has been a central Brown adviser?
Ashcroft is disliked because he is effective. His money saved the Tories from bankruptcy, and his organisational and business skills are driving them towards a majority in the next election. He is a significant and substantial figure for these reasons. there are, however, no constitutional implications involved. No questions of national sovereignty. No matters, in fact, of particular moment or interest to anyone beyond nervous incumbent MPs. There’s a lot of smoke being kicked up, but really there’s no discernible fire.