Despite its last-minute withdrawal of a Panorama programme alleging that the Tory donor had avoided a £3m plus tax bill by transferring ownership of his company just hours before the law changed, the BBC said it would stand behind its latest investigative report into the peer’s finances which has delivered ‘conclusive’ evidence that Lord Ashcroft invariably finds an excuse not to put his hand in his pocket at the pub.
‘It’s the same story every time,’ said one of the regulars at the Fox and Hounds where Lord Ashcroft occasionally drinks. ‘As soon as one of the lads looks like finishing his pint, you turn around and old Ashcroft’s disappeared off to the loo or gone to make a call. He’s got a wonderful sense of timing for these things. Sometimes he pops outside for a smoke, but everyone knows he gave up 30 years ago.’
The BBC has also discovered that on the rare occasions Ashcroft doesn’t manage to excuse himself ‘to see a man about a philanthropic donation’ before it’s his turn to go to the bar, he frequently performs an elaborate ‘pocket patting’ routine while assuring the barman that this has never happened to him before and he must have absent-mindedly left his wallet back on the yacht. Another common excuse involves him telling bar staff that he’s out of change, but he doesn’t want to clean out the till by asking them to cash a banker’s draft for £5,000.
‘I know the price of a pint is a bit steep these days,’ another regular told Panorama journalists, ‘but if anyone’s best placed to weather the rising tide of ale prices, it’s a non-domiciled investment tycoon with an estimated fortune of £1.1bn. And he never gets any crisps.’
Lawyers acting for Lord Ashcroft deny that he has done anything wrong or owes the landlord of the Fox and Hounds a penny. ‘Our client has spent far less time in this establishment than people allege. And to suggest it is his local is absurd. He lives more than 5,000 miles away.’