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Tories back in business with £18m war chest

Conservative Party fundraisers have raised nearly half of the £18m needed for the election "fighting" fund after a big upsurge of support from businessmen and City financiers.

Sources said the party has already brought in between £5m and £10m for the war chest to pay for next year's election, which is being pencilled in for 6 May. This new money comes on top of the £15m already raised this year to run the party.

"We've still got a mountain to climb," said one party insider. "But its looking much better. There's been a huge up-tick in donations and interest from businessmen and bankers. David Cameron's bold statements on public spending cuts have been a big pull."

New and existing donors were among the 400 guests who attended last week's high-profile Carlton Club dinner at which David Cameron claimed: "This is it". The dinner, which was sold-out two weeks after being announced, was seen by organisers as kicking off the behind-the-scenes election campaign. "The swords are being sharpened," said one fund-raiser.

Barclays Capital and Lansdowne Partners, the hedge fund, were among those which paid for tables – £10,000 each – and which raised around £500,000. Landsdowne's chairman, Paul Ruddock, a big Tory supporter and a leading arts philanthropist, chaired the dinner. It drew in people from across the City and business as well as celebrities such as actress Greta Scacchi, according to the guest-list which reads like a who's who of the party's new power brokers. Many there had not been associated with the party before and "came to listen", said one present.

Guests included Simon Wolfson, Next chief executive; Richard Gnodde, vice-chairman of Goldman Sachs International; Naguib Kheraj, head of JP Morgan Cazenove; Michael Hintze, boss of CQS hedge fund; Hugh Osmond of Pearl Insurance; Ken Costa, chairman of Lazard International; Jeremy Isaacs, ex-Lehman boss; Sir Christopher Gent, ex-Vodafone chairman. Co-treasurers of the party Stanley Fink, ex-Man Group chief, and Michael Spencer, ICAP chief executive, were also present

Another dinner, to be chaired by William Hague, the shadow Foreign Secretary, at next week's Conservative conference in Manchester, has also had record interest drawing up to 400 people. "It's unusual to have such a popular Opposition leader and such an unpopular leader which is a huge boost to us," the source added. "But there are negatives too. Publicity over political donation, suggesting they are something 'sinister', has really worried potential donors. People are also much poorer than they were a year ago."

More than 110 organisations and companies – from General Motors to Carpetright – are taking stands at next week's party conference in Manchester. Another 17 companies including Tesco, M&S,WH Smith and Austin Reed will be exhibiting in Market Place shopping mall in the main conference hall. Standard Life, the insurer, is back after 10 years in exile. All the stands were fully booked in August – three weeks earlier than last year – and there is a waiting list.