The history man and fatwa girl: How will David Cameron take news that think-tank guru Niall Ferguson has deserted wife Sue Douglas for Somali feminist?
The internationally celebrated historian and TV presenter Niall Ferguson has broken up with his wife of 16 years after a string of adulterous affairs.
The 45-year-old Harvard professor has left former newspaper editor Susan Douglas, with whom he has three children, for his mistress, the Somalian-born feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
Ms Hirsi Ali, 40, is a lawyer and former Dutch MP who wrote the script for a controversial film that criticised Islam and resulted in the assassination of its director. She is currently living under police protection in America.
Professor Ferguson, whose books, television programmes and work with financial hedge funds earn an estimated £5million a year, is understood to have been in a relationship with Ms Hirsi Ali since last summer.
Today, The Mail on Sunday can reveal how Ferguson’s philandering behaviour – described by one confidante as ‘more akin to a Premiership footballer’s louche ways than an esteemed professor’s’ – wrecked his marriage to Ms Douglas, one of Tory leader David Cameron’s closest friends, a leading member of the Tory ‘A-list’ of potential parliamentary candidates and a former Fleet Street editor.
Ferguson ‘cheated eight times in five years’
Ferguson, who also has high-level links to the Tory Party, with a seat on the board of the Right-wing think-tank the Centre for Policy Studies, has been seen with Ms Hirsi Ali at a number of high-profile events over recent months.
Just two weeks ago they attended the Jaipur Literary Festival in India where they were photographed kissing in the opulent surroundings of the spectacular Diggi Palace.
Ms Hirsi Ali had been flown to the event secretly. She has been the subject of threats from Muslim extremists since writing the script for the movie Submission, which was critical of Islam.
When its director, Theo Van Gogh, was shot dead in an Amsterdam street in 2004, a death threat against Ms Hirsi Ali was pinned to his chest. Since then she has lived in safe houses in Washington and New York under constant armed protection.
Previously Ms Hirsi Ali lived in seclusion and under police protection in the Netherlands. She fled from Africa to Amsterdam in 1992 where she obtained political asylum.
Ms Hirsi Ali, who became involved in politics and feminist issues including criticising the practice of female circumcision, which she underwent as a child, claimed she was fleeing Africa to escape an arranged marriage.
She works as a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank.
The pair are understood to have met at Time magazine’s prestigious 100 Most Influential People In The World party in New York last May. Ferguson and Ms Hirsi Ali, who have both been on the list, were introduced by Belinda Luscombe, the magazine’s art editor.
The flamboyant Ms Hirsi Ali, who was dressed in an eye-catching cobalt-blue cocktail dress, immediately captivated Ferguson, who was photographed with his arm around her waist.
Ms Luscombe, a friend of Ms Hirsi Ali, said: ‘I think that is where they met for the first time. In all the years I have known Ayaan, she’s never had a boyfriend. She’s gorgeous, but with a fatwa, it’s tricky to find guys.’
According to sources within Ferguson’s influential circle of academic friends, he has made no secret of his relationship with Ms Hirsi Ali.
The British historian Sir Alistair Horne, with whom he is currently writing the authorised biography of Henry Kissinger, is said to know about the affair, as does Mr Kissinger. However a spokesman for the statesman declined to comment yesterday.
‘It’s rather awkward because both Sue and Niall know Henry and his wife Nancy, neither of whom can understand why Niall has been bringing women other than his wife to private dinners,’ said a source Ferguson, whose books include the bestsellers The Ascent Of Money, which was made into a Channel 4 TV series, and Empire And Colossus, for which he received a £500,000 advance, confessed his adulterous affair to Ms Douglas last summer.
‘He eventually told Sue and said how wonderful Ayaan was and how much he loved her,’ said a friend. ‘Sue tried to save the marriage and flew to Manhattan to be with Niall in November.’
Ms Douglas, who is seven years older than her husband, has met Ms Hirsi Ali on a number of occasions.
Sources close to Ferguson, who was a professor at Oxford before moving to Harvard, say that he has consulted lawyers in the States, while Ms Douglas plans to file for divorce and has consulted a London-based law firm.
It is not the first time that Ferguson has been unfaithful. He has cheated on his wife eight times over the past five years, according to one family friend, and five of these affairs have apparently taken place over the past 18 months.
‘Sue is incredibly strong and resilient,’ says a friend. ‘She has always met life’s challenges head-on and with a sense of humour and perspective.
Forgiving: Tory favourite Sue Douglas has overlooked her husband’s previous affairs
Inevitably she manages to discover an upside to even the toughest situations. She has been prepared to forgive Niall’s infidelities over the past two or three years because she so passionately believes in keeping the family together.’
The couple have two sons aged 14 and nine, and a 13-year-old daughter. In addition to their properties in Boston and Oxfordshire, they also have a holiday home in Wales.
According to members of his circle in Boston, Ferguson has said that his marriage has run its course and is insisting the split is mutual. Ms Douglas however, has made it clear that she wanted to fight for her marriage.
Now it is over, she may claim she is entitled to half of her husband’s fortune, having financed much of his early career and raised their three children.
While he is keen to advise others how to spend their fortunes, Ferguson isn’t enthusiastic when it comes to parting with his own cash. In a recent interview he admitted: ‘I intensely dislike spending money, which means that I love big conferences where somebody else pays for everything… I am definitely a saver. Staying in cash seems like quite a good idea at the moment.’
Ferguson, who used to shop at Oxfam in the Eighties when he was a struggling junior academic, has also admitted: ‘I am in debt overall but that is because I am married to a spender. And all our debts are set against assets, in other words, our three houses.’
Given Ferguson’s high profile and the couple’s connections in the media, political and academic worlds, the divorce will be one of the most spectacular of the coming year.
The separation is likely to affect both of their political careers, as each enjoys close links with the Conservative party, which has been focusing heavily on the promotion of marriage.
Ferguson is on the board of the Centre for Policy Studies, the leading Right-wing think-tank, and works as an unofficial adviser to Mr Cameron, in particular on how to promote ‘Britishness’.
He also worked as an adviser to John McCain at the beginning of his election campaign before quitting to support his rival, Barack Obama. He is considered a leading expert on foreign affairs and once described himself as an ‘ardent Thatcherite’ but now calls himself a ‘liberal fundamentalist’.
He is seen as a contentious figure in literary circles, prompting one rival historian to declare: ‘He has the kind of face you want to punch.’
‘Ayaan is gorgeous, but it’s tricky with a fatwa to find guys’
Meanwhile, Ms Douglas is seen as one of the Tory Party’s rising stars, and is on the A-list of aspiring Parliamentary candidates. She is said to be in the running to contest the Tory stronghold of Stratford-upon-Avon at the next General Election. It is understood that Henry Kissinger wrote an endorsement to Mr Cameron which helped secure her place on the prestigious list.
A friend who has known Ms Douglas for many years said last night: ‘It just seems sad that, despite all the lessons of history, Niall has set himself off in pursuit of some liberal idea of individual freedom and appears hellbent on breaking up his family. God knows how Ayaan thinks her feminist views square with her current conduct with Niall.
‘For Sue’s part, I think she is stunned at how a man who is possessed of one of the world’s foremost intellects can suddenly, in his 40s, start conducting a private life in a manner more akin to that of a Premiership footballer than a professor. Her main concern is to make sure that the children are fully supported and protected through all this.’
Although Ferguson is now the famous name in the marriage, Ms Douglas was the breadwinner during the early years of their relationship. Ferguson comes from a modest background. His father was an NHS doctor and his mother a teacher, and the family lived in a high-rise apartment in Glasgow. As a student at Magdalen College, Oxford, he was once so penniless he bought a wedding ring on his credit card and sold it to a pawn shop to raise some cash.
When he moved to London he started a career as a journalist, and wrote for the Daily Mail under Ms Douglas, who was an executive editor at the time. At The Sunday Times and as editor of the Sunday Express, she later became one of the most powerful women in Fleet Street.
In 1992, Ferguson returned to Oxford to write a history of the Rothschild dynasty and two years later he and Ms Douglas were married.
In 1995, a year after their wedding, Ms Douglas reached the apex of her career when she edited the Sunday Express. In 2002, she was appointed president of new business at magazine publishers Condé Nast before moving to PFD talent agency where she worked as a consultant.
Then in 2006 she suffered a serious riding accident at the couple’s holiday home in Wales. She fell from her horse and was airlifted to hospital where tests showed serious brain damage and internal bleeding.
Ferguson cut short a book tour of America to be with his wife and helped her on the road to recovery.
‘I couldn’t bear being away,’ he said at the time. He also dedicated his book Ascent Of Money to his wife, saying: ‘In the time that this book was written, my wife Susan fought her way back from a severe accident and other reverses. To her and to our children, I owe the biggest debt.’
‘He acts like a football star, not a professor’
By this stage he had moved to America, having accepted a chair in history at Harvard. It was then that he also started advising some of the world’s leading hedge-fund managers and forged a close friendship with the banking heir Nat Rothschild.
‘There was a point when it was not impossible for me to get $100,000 for a one-hour speech at some extravagant hedge-fund manager conference in an exotic location,’ Ferguson recalled. While he lived a jet-set lifestyle, his wife stayed at home with the children. Ferguson travelled home every three weeks, but the marriage suffered.
Says a friend: ‘Niall has a fair few enemies who feel he has got above his station, but Sue always stood by him. The marriage was fine for 13 years, then when Niall went to America, it all started to go wrong.’
Last night Ms Douglas, who was at the couple’s Oxfordshire home, declined to comment.
And when asked about her affair with Ferguson, Ms Hirsi Ali said: ‘I’m sorry, I am really not going to comment about that.’
Ferguson also declined to comment.