The Ashcroft affair is proving to have stout legs. We have very clearly moved beyond the simple non-dom status element and moved into two equally, if not more, serious areas:
1. Tony Blair and The Queen, and potential constitutional implications
The Observer today raises a new point:
The row over Lord Ashcroft’s donations to the Tory party threatened to erupt into a full-blown constitutional crisis last night as questions were raised over whether the Queen and the former prime minister, Tony Blair, had granted him a peerage under false pretences.
William Hague features as a central figure in the article. Much of it appears to revolve around the distinction between “resident” and “domiciled”.
2. Ashcroft accompanying Hague on trips
I find this element more disturbing than any of the rest. The Observer reports on a trip to the World Bank (scroll down half way):
The Observer has established that the peer met the head of the World Bank while accompanying the shadow foreign secretary on an official opposition visit to the United States last October.
The Belize-based billionaire, who has no official shadow front bench role, met Robert Zoellick, the influential financier, and then flew back with Hague in his private jet. The latest development will increase the pressure on Hague and Ashcroft to explain the influence Ashcroft has had over the Tories’ foreign policy. Critics have claimed that he bought access to business leaders and statesmen by paying for Hague’s flights.
A Whitehall source said that Ashcroft was part of the delegation that went to the World Bank. “His presence certainly raised eyebrows among the Washington fraternity because he is not part of the official Foreign Office team,” he said
And on Friday the Guardian reported on a trip to Cuba:
Lord Ashcroft was suspected by Britain’s ambassador to Cuba of attempting to develop business interests in the country while accompanying William Hague on an official shadow Foreign Office visit.
A memo sent to the Foreign Office by Dianna Melrose, the British envoy in Havana, states: “Ashcroft was sniffing out future business opportunities here – I think.” It was written after Ashcroft had flown Hague into the country for a meeting with Cuba’s foreign minister and visited the British embassy.
Disclosure of the note prompted further questions asking why Ashcroft is allowed to accompany Hague on official visits to meet dignitaries when he is not on the shadow foreign team. The Guardian has previously shown that Ashcroft met Chinese foreign affairs officials to discuss Belize hours after meeting Chinese leaders with Hague.
John Mann, the Labour MP for Bassetlaw who triggered an Electoral Commission investigation into Ashcroft’s company Bearwood Corporate Services, said the Tories should disclose where in the world Hague has been with Ashcroft, who they have met, and what was discussed.
“Ashcroft appears to be paying for William Hague’s flights to give him access into Cuba and other countries. This is particularly invidious considering William Hague’s foreign affairs portfolio.”
Yesterday Ashcroft’s spokesman denied having or pursuing any business interests in Cuba and said that Melrose’s assessment was wrong. “[The memo] speaks volumes about the business judgment of our lady in Havana,” he said. Hague’s spokesman declined to comment.
Hague’s three-day Cuban visit began on 15 March 2009, when he flew with Ashcroft into Havana, courtesy of a private jet from Flying Lion Ltd, a company controlled by the Belize-based billionaire. Hague has flown with the company on at least 10 occasions.
The British embassy in Havana was surprised to receive a telephone call from Hague in which he announced he was in the country and suggested a meeting.
Hague and Ashcroft held a 50-minute meeting with Melrose in her official residency in Havana, according to Cuban sources. Afterwards, she wrote a lengthy memo detailing the visit, which was then sent to London some weeks later.
One embassy official said: “It was unusual, to say the least. We get very few visiting dignitaries here. They came over for a meeting and talked openly about their meetings with Cuban government officials.”
These trips certainly require further explanation, that’s for sure. They might also raise the question “Why did Michael Ashcroft actually want to be a peer in the first place?” (and indeed why did the Tories want him to be a peer so much, purportedly in the national interest). That’s a question that could begin to be answered, perhaps, by the record of his performance in the House of Lords. That’s a subject touched on by the same article in the Guardian:
It is unclear what use the Tories have made of Ashcroft since he was awarded his peerage. He appears to have voted fewer than 200 times over the past decade, about 16% of the votes in the Lords during that period.
He has asked about 30 questions during the past four sessions of parliament. Six of those questions have related to Belize or the Turks and Caicos Islands. He has also asked a number of questions about the south Pacific island state of Nauru, and about a Royal Air Force base, which is occasionally used by his private jet.
Suffice it to say that Lord Ashcroft’s performance in the House of Lords seems to be a bit on …eh-hem… the wild side. A bit ‘rarefied’ shall we say? The subjects on which he has asked questions do not at first appear to be the sort which would greatly exercise the “man on the Clapham omnibus”.