Donors sought for Tory ballot

TWO SENIOR Conservative treasurers have agreed to underwrite the pounds 300,000 cost of the party's ballot on Europe amid concern among members about the state of the party's finances.

Sir Graham Kirkham, founder of the DFS furniture chain, and Michael Ashcroft, who sold out of the ADT security firm for pounds 154m last year, are looking for donors to pay for the cost.

However, a number of wealthy friends of the Tories have already said that they do not intend to help with the ballot devised by William Hague, the party leader.

The party says the donors will not include Paul Sykes, the Eurosceptic who has pledged pounds 40m to fight the European single currency. Nor will the media moguls Conrad Black or Rupert Murdoch help, despite their strong views on the subject.

Sir Archie Norman, the party's chief executive, announced plans to cut almost 50 jobs in July, taking staffing levels to 188 from 235. There would be 22 redundancies, he said, after the party ran up a pounds 4m overdraft during last year's general election.

Although the party has denied that a proposal was ever put forward for the cost of the ballot to come from its central funds, senior figures have said they expressed their antagonism to the idea.

A party spokesman said its ruling board had agreed "on the nod" with the plan for the two treasurers to find the money. "We knew that the board were very concerned about the financial position of the party and we had set a very tight budget which we all agreed to stick to," he said. The two treasurers had agreed to find the money from other sources. However, several of those who might have been expected to help have ruled out the idea.

A spokesman for Business for Sterling, a group of wealthy figures opposing the single currency, said it would not pay for the ballot. Nor would Sir Stanley Kalms, the chairman of Dixons, who is linked with the group.

One figure rumoured to be putting money into the ballot, the property tycoon David Hart, denied that he was doing so. "No chance. Not a cat's chance in hell. I am not a member, and although I think the ballot is a good idea I would not dream of helping," he said.

An assistant to Lord Harris, the carpet millionaire who has funded the party in the past, said he no longer had anything to do with the party.

The ballot has irritated pro-Europeans. Michael Welsh, chief executive of the Action Centre for Europe, said that Mr Hague should spell out exactly who was paying for it.

"Regional chairman are iffy about the whole business because they feel at a time when agents are being sacked it didn't do much for morale on the ground," Mr Welsh said.

Ballot papers went out to all members of the party earlier this week, and the result is expected to be announced just before its conference starts in 10 days' time.

The result is likely to be a resounding "yes" vote for Mr Hague's policy of staying out of the European single currency for the duration of at least this Parliament and the next.

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