Tories aiming to tap Yorkshire's new rich

Party funding: Rags-to-riches millionaires replacing old money as main source of cash for depleted coffers; `What's the use of being a millionaire in a socialist Britain?'
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The Independent Online
Desperate to raise enough cash to fight the next general election, the Conservatives are turning towards an unlikely source of revenue: the self- made millionaires of unfashionable, unglamorous Yorkshire.

Party sources estimate a war chest of pounds 11m has been built-up for the next election when it comes - and is being kept separate from other funds, over which the Royal Bank of Scotland, as holder of its pounds 10m-plus overdraft, has first call.

In the past, the party has turned to international wheeler-dealers, waving mighty cheque books. That, say party insiders is still going on. But much of the campaign fund for John Major's Tory party is also coming from this country's homegrown wealthy.

Top of that list is Yorkshire's abundance of entrepreneurs, who began at the bottom and hauled themselves to the summit. All of them made their money under a Conservative government. They all know each other, live in style in stately homes dotted around the Yorkshire countryside and are determined to bring the Tories victory at the next election.

They are also well known to Lord Harris, the discount carpet king, now the party's chief fund-raiser. Like him, they have backgrounds in retailing, mainly furniture, and property.

Accounts of Stadium City, the private company of Eddie Healey, joint developer, along with another multi-millionaire, Paul Sykes, of the giant Meadowhall shopping centre in Sheffield, reveal a donation to the party of pounds 100,000.

Both Mr Healey, who made his first fortune from MFI, and Mr Sykes were guests at a fund-raising party held by Lord Harris at his home.

When Mr Major needed help, when the party's finances were in even more dire straits, he went to Yorkshire, to see Graham Kirkham, a multi-millionaire who made his money from the DFS discount furniture chain. Mr (now Sir Graham) Kirkham, a miner's son, handed over a cheque for pounds 4m.

Another miner's son is Mr Sykes, who left school at 15, and, thanks to a series of brilliant business ventures, culminating in the hugely successful Meadowhall, is now worth pounds 160m.

A die-hard Conservative, Mr Sykes was once a councillor in his local Barnsley and donated a bomb-proof "battle bus" to Mrs Thatcher's general election campaign in 1987. He now sits on the powerful Conservative Yorkshire Area Council, responsible for 50 constitutencies.

There is no danger of him deserting to New Labour and will do everything in his power to keep the Tories in charge. He will not say how much he gives personally but makes it plain he is happy to do so: "It used to be run by old landowners, now there is a new wealth brigade, who started with nothing and have created thousands of jobs. A lot has changed in the last 17 years, there has been a shake-out. A lot of people do believe in giving money to the cause."

The prospect of closer ties with Europe which Labour would bring, he says, fill him, and his wealthy friends, with horror. "What is the use of being a millionaire in a socialist Britain? In a socialist Europe?"

It would be "a disaster", claimed Mr Sykes, not because his own pocket would necessarily suffer but because the wealth generation process would be harmed.

A close friend of Mr Sykes - they used to live together near Wetherby - is George Moore. Furniture retailing and property were the keys to Mr Moore's pounds 100m fortune. Another friend of Mr Moore said he was "a big supporter of the Conservative party".

The Tories' approach to the land of Geoffrey Boycott and the bulldog spirit, is illustrated by a recent leaked letter from Robert Ogden, a multi-millionaire businessman, inviting like-minded friends to a fund- raising dinner at his home near Wetherby. As disclosed in the Independent on Sunday, Brian Mawhinney, the party chairman, asked Mr Ogden to hold the gathering. It would be "an occasion for prominent businessmen in our area to discuss the conduct of the campaign and to enlist their financial support".

Guest of honour at the dinner was Stephen Dorrell, the Secretary of State for Health.

Follower of Britain's wealthy, Dr Philip Beresford, said yesterday that the Tories' strategy was understandable. "These people are more appealing to the modern Tory party than the old, landowning class. They have ready cash, a dynamic `can do' image and are wealth, and job, creators."