HHe is a prolific political editor, whose books and websites have caused terrifying embarrassment to prime ministers – and now a political spouse. But for Michael Ashcroft, the billionaire businessman and conservative donor, his books on major political players are all about influence.
Before the revelations this week in an upcoming book, First Lady, about Carrie Johnson, Ashcroft’s most famous revelation was David Cameron’s “pig-gate” scandal in his book Call Me Dave. It was widely accused of being personal ax work after his relationship with the then prime minister soured.
Since then, Ashcroft has published exposes of the UK’s failing defense and health services, as well as a number of political biographies. These aren’t always meant as takedowns — he published warm biographies of Rishi Sunak and Jacob Rees-Mogg when their political careers were in full swing.
His quest for political influence is not limited to books: he owns a majority stake in the influential ConservativeHome website and is the largest shareholder in Dods, a parliamentary website that publishes PoliticsHome and House magazine and subscription services. widely read in Westminster and Whitehall.
There is certainly significant editorial freedom; On Monday, ConHome editor Paul Goodman publicly questioned whether Carrie Johnson was fair game. “Whether the accusation is true or not, it deviates from the main point. That is, the prime minister himself, not his wife, bears responsibility for his decisions,” he wrote.
The First Lady’s publication was reportedly brought forward after Johnson’s premiership was jeopardized by partygate. The book contains a number of significant – and disputed – allegations, including that Carrie Johnson messaged staff from the Prime Minister’s phone, interfered in major policy decisions and arranged for members staff be hired or fired, depending on who was in favor.
Ashcroft does not post to make money; his net worth is estimated at $2.1 billion, the bulk of which comes from the sale of home security company ADT. He is a citizen of Belize, where he is a major investor.
“These books and websites aren’t about making money, they’re about being a gamer, being part of the political conversation and making headlines,” a former associate said. “He doesn’t micromanage, but he knows books need a spicy anecdote to get serializations.”
Ashcroft employs writers and researchers for its books, usually a lead author with a small staff. They are a privileged and trusted few, including former Sunday Times political editor Isabel Oakeshott and former Mail on Sunday reporter Miles Goslett.
Those who have worked with Ashcroft say he is as eager to spot, nurture and endorse future talent as he is to shine the spotlight on those who have looked down on him. Ashcroft has been open about his “beef” with Cameron, despite an earlier closeness, after Cameron failed to offer him a senior government post in 2010.
Cameron blamed the Liberal Democrats, who were forming a coalition government, and offered Ashcroft a junior Foreign Office post. “It would have been better if Cameron hadn’t offered me anything at all,” Ashcroft wrote. “Having invested some £8million in the party, I considered this a declineable offer.”
Craig Oliver, Cameron’s spin doctor, said Ashcroft’s methods need to be looked at closely. He wrote in the Spectator that claims by Ashcroft and his co-writer Isabel Oakeshott about Cameron’s alleged sucking of a pig’s head had no verifiable source but nevertheless exploded into a big story.
“The claim was deeply cynical, as those behind it knew that even if there was no evidence, it would be toxic anyway,” he wrote. “Any attempt to say the story wasn’t true would result in headlines ‘PM Denies Pig Sex Allegation’, leading some to believe there is no smoke In the end, all I could advise was to say nothing, depriving the story of any additional energy.
Oliver said he detected something similar in one of the book’s most explosive claims about Carrie Johnson, that she used the Prime Minister’s phone to give instructions to staff members.
“The anonymous source is only guessing what happened, with no solid evidence to support their claim,” he wrote. “I have no idea if the story is true or not – but readers deserve higher standards of proof than this for it to simply be thrown into the public domain.”
A source who knows Cameron said he made peace with the book. He is known to have at least two copies on his shelves in his family home.
Ashcroft has rarely made inroads into Labor personalities, but in August last year he published Red Knight, an unauthorized biography of Keir Starmer. It was in this book that the seeds of Johnson’s attack on Starmer for not prosecuting Jimmy Savile were sown in the minds of many conservatives, although it is clear that Starmer was not personally involved in decision.
In fact, the book argues that Starmer should be held accountable for Operation Midland, the police investigation into trumped-up sexual abuse charges against several public figures.
Ashcroft claims that following the failed prosecution of pedophile Jimmy Savile, which happened when Starmer was Director of Public Prosecutions – although it didn’t involve him personally – he adopted an ‘ideology’ which said that the testimony of the victims should be believed, which became very influential.
Ashcroft seeks to draw a line between this and the credibility the police lent to the alleged victim, “Nick”, who was later convicted of perverting the course of justice. Ashcroft says the case continues to “haunt” Starmer, as much as the Met.
But there were few things that troubled Starmer’s team. One team member said they adopted a rigid policy of non-cooperation, which Ashcroft acknowledges in the book, and its authors found it very difficult to find disgruntled or aggrieved former Starmer associates – even among his exes. – girlfriends. Very few of Starmer’s friends, colleagues, associates, or teachers were willing to be interviewed.
For Carrie Johnson, there is no shortage of anonymous and aggrieved former colleagues, Downing Street staffers, Tory aides and ex-friends.
Ashcroft’s motivation to delve into the privacy and influence of the prime minister’s wife is less transparent than his feud with Cameron. Goodman speculated that this was to maintain political intrigue and relevance: “Our landlord likes to be in the news and talked about.”
The accusation leveled against Ashcroft by Johnson’s supporters is that she is not an elected politician, with no ability to defend herself publicly. A conservative friend called the book a “witch hunt” and said there was consensus that in publishing the book Ashcroft had gone “a step too far”.
The friend pointed to Ashcroft’s ownership of Dods, which produces an annual event for women in leadership, calling it ‘duplicity’ that ‘Ashcroft makes money from a conference to help women and publishes at the same time a book that is deeply misogynistic and sexist”. .”
But Ashcroft insists Johnson’s scrutiny is in the public interest. “The evidence I have gathered suggests his wife’s behavior is preventing him from running Britain as effectively as the voters deserve,” he wrote.