Goldsmith will also hit Labour and Lib Dems

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The Independent Online

Westminster Correspondent

For every eight votes Sir James Goldsmith's Referendum Party takes from the Conservatives, it will probably take more from across the main Opposition parties, according to the party's private polling.

The polling shows that for every eight Tory votes, it will take six from Labour and five from the Liberal Democrats. Aides of Sir James claim that figures show the party appeals to a broader spectrum than previously realised.

The poll should soothe Tory jitters, and suggest the impact of Sir James's cheque book may not be as damaging as supposed. But despite the showcase signing up to the party by Lord McAlpine, an ex-treasurer and deputy chairman of the Conservative Party, the Referendum Party remains troubled.

The party's forthcoming one-day conference in Brighton, to be chaired by Lord McAlpine, is seen internally as crucial. If the party manages to shed its image as a haven for rich friends of Sir James and eccentric right-wingers, then a month-long mailshot exercise will follow.

An advertising campaign will be rolled out and the party will then be regarded as properly up and running. Most important, say insiders, morale, badly weakened by sackings, a poor press and lack of organisation, will be boosted.

The defection of Lord McAlpine, may also prove pivotal. Always optimistic, forever reaching for a formidable list of friends and contacts, the Tories' former controller of the purse strings, is the sort of "can do" Mr Fixit figure Mrs Thatcher so admired. He brings years of campaigning nous to a party that until now has been bereft in this department.

Sir James is one of the world's most successful businessmen but he appears to have little political savvy. So far, nobody in the party has been prepared to stand up to him: "He shouts, we jump", was how one party source yesterday described working for him. He cited, as an example of what he meant, a lacklustre pamphlet sent to 6 million households and ascribed to Sir James.

Worries about infiltration from other parties and the need for tight security are said to be the Referendum Party's major priorities at present and reputedly take up a lot of the internal discussions. If so, that is a reflection of Sir James the takeover king, rather than the head of a party with a general election to fight and candidates still to select.

Staff do not expect to win any seats - even Sir James's own battle in Putney against David Mellor is not now regarded as a probability - and already they are making plans for life after the election. They are on one-month contracts - agreements they do not expect to be renewed if Labour wins the general election.

Documents filed at Companies House by the Referendum Party hint at the group's limited future. While Sir James has promised pounds 20m to the party, the papers at Companies House reveal expenditure, so far, of pounds 500,000. The bulk will, no doubt, go to campaigning and advertising.

But Sir James makes it plain his wallet may not always stay open. A commitment to the party from his private organisation, the Goldsmith Foundation for European Affairs, includes the accounts statement that this is "subject to review and subject to an agreed cap".