What the Story of the Billionaire Behind Pig-Gate Tells Us About British Politics
The One Percenter who spread the news about UK Prime Minister David Cameron's alleged naughty business with a pig is far from an unbiased source.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
It's the last day of the Daily Mail's serialization of what they're calling the "political book of the decade," Call Me Dave. After a week's worth of stories for the country's biggest newspaper—and with no end in sight to the David-Cameron-fucking-a-dead-pig jokes—I think it's remarkable that people are still buying it. Dark political secrets are supposedly being revealed about our overlords, without asking who the true overlord is here—namely the billionaire behind the book, Lord Ashcroft.
Lord Ashcroft's career says a lot more about the relationship between money, the Conservative Party, and how we are governed than any story about a penis and a pig's head. Even Ashcroft's co-author says that with the pig fucking story they were "merely reporting" what they were told by "a respected Tory MP who is a contemporary of David Cameron's at Oxford" without any judgement as to whether it is actually true.
I can "merely report" that at Conservative Headquarters, Ashcroft's nickname was Blofeld (from 1998-2001 he was party Treasurer and from 2005-2010 he was party Chairman). They thought of him as like a James Bond villain. He has a headquarters in a tropical paradise—Belize, a tax haven—where he keeps two massive yachts and a private jet. He doesn't actually live in a fake volcano run by men in orange boiler suits on golf carts, but he does use his powers—a.k.a. a very large bag of money—to try and bend the world to his will.
Even at the surface of the current scandal it is openly said that Ashcroft has written a hatchet-job biography of Cameron because he is angry he couldn't buy a position as a minister. It's not a great context for a supposedly explosive political scandal.
That's before you ask how Ashcroft became a billionaire. Much of the press seems to be too trivial to mention that, but Ashcroft has threatened some of the journalists that are more serious about reporting with libel, and he's got the cash and lawyers to back it up.
Who really did something really outrageous in the back in 1980s? Dave with a pig? My vote goes for Lord Ashcroft. Back then his main business, Hawley Group, was heavily into contract cleaning. Behind the scenes, Ashcroft funded a political lobby to privatize the cleaning of schools and NHS hospitals—until that point were run by the public sector. The lobby group he funded, called PULSE (the "Public and Local Service Efficiency" Campaign) was set up in 1985 to persuade the public sector to contract out services like cleaning and catering. Ashcroft gave PULSE around £500,000 [$759,000]. The campaign's advisory council included a handful of right-wing Tory MPs including Gerald Howarth, Neil Hamilton, and Michael Portillo, as well as former Westminster Council leader Lady Shirley Porter. It was very successful.
Peter Clarke, the man who ran the privatize-cleaning campaign told the Scotsman newspaper "nothing unlawful nor improper took place," but "this was very successful political engineering," because "Mr. Ashcroft's Hawley Services Group prospered in the new market created by PULSE's lobbying. PULSE appeared to be a popular campaign but in truth it was a money-making venture for Mr. Ashcroft."
Ashcroft's firm, Hawley Group, got a round a third of the new NHS contracts in 1983-1988. After privatization the number of hospital cleaners dropped massively. Their wages and conditions were also cut. Thanks to this privatization, we were left with dirty hospitals and MRSA—trade union Unison estimated the number of hospital cleaners dropped from over 100,000 in 1984 to around 55,000 in 2005, because of the privatization drive. Even the moderate Royal College of Nursing called for an end to the privatization that made Ashcroft rich, asking that cleaning should be brought back in-house to help stop the hundreds of deaths from MRSA and other infections every year.
Ashcroft's companies also moved into hospital catering, which was also privatized thanks to the political campaign he funded: the poor state of hospital food is one of his legacies.
Ashcroft cashed in, sold off the firms that got rich from the policy he had promoted—and then took his money offshore to Belize. So, the current headlines are generated by a man who got rich out of the UK's public services and taking the money to an offshore haven.
He is very powerful in the Central American country, thanks to his ownership of the nation's biggest financial institution, Belize Bank, and many other businesses. In 2009 Belize's Prime Minister Dean Barrow said, "Ashcroft is an extremely powerful man. His net worth may well be equal to Belize's entire GDP. He is nobody to cross."
Ashcroft wanted to be a UK minister after shielding his cash from UK taxes by shifting his business to a Central American republic. Ashcroft thought his £8 million [$12 million] of donations to the Tories could give him a shortcut so that he could avoid the normal route to becoming a Minister, which usually involved arduous tasks such as actually getting elected. Cameron actually did offer him a job as a "Junior Whip" in the Foreign Office, but Ashcroft rejected it because he thought he'd bought a bigger job. Ashcroft says that he "regarded this as a declinable offer. It would have been better had Cameron offered me nothing at all." Ashcroft often argues that Cameron is not "modern" enough, but has an 18th century attitude towards buying a place in the government.
Cameron has been getting a press shellacking because of Ashcroft's book, but the real story is about how he didn't let Ashcroft buy a place in government. Whatever the reasons for that, he did the right thing for once. A book published by an angry multi-millionaire full of barely political smears tells us something about our political world, but not much about David Cameron.
I approached Lord Ashcroft for comment but did not get a response.
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