Tory Conference: Supporters pay pounds 2,500 to dine

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WEALTHY CONSERVATIVES are buying invitations to private lunches and dinners with William Hague and other senior figures for pounds 2,500 under a new party fund-raising scheme.

The party, which has struggled to pay off a pounds 4m overdraft after a number of big donors lost interest, has launched a series of "clubs" whose members gain a range of privileges. They pay for their meals on top of the cost of membership.

Members willing to donate more than pounds 5,000 can join the Renaissance Forum, through which they can expect to be invited to a private dinner with Mr Hague. Other shadow cabinet members also make themselves available to meet members of the club in small groups. Party officials say they have signed up about 30 recruits.

For between pounds 2,500 and pounds 5,000, members of the Front Bench Club will receive invitations to lunch with senior figures in the party, including Mr Hague. They can expect about 15 or 20 people to be present, and will occasionally be invited to eat in a private House of Commons dining room. Members of the Front Bench Club will be invited to the party treasurers' lunch tomorrow in Bournemouth, where the Deputy Leader, Peter Lilley, will be the main speaker. .

Conservatives with pounds 1,000 to spend can join Team 1000, which has several hundred members across the country. Impoverished young professionals and business people can join a cut-price versioncalled Fastrack with an initial donation of pounds 250, which rises to pounds 500 after the first year. Only about 50 have joined up so far, and they are being invited to Team 1000 events.

The party has taken on two full-time staff to run the clubs. It has also recruited a new director of fund-raising and five regional fund-raising managers.

The Renaissance Forum's predecessor was the Premier Club, whose members paid from pounds 10,000 to meet John Major. A party spokeswoman said the Conservatives wanted to build a large base of smaller donations rather than relying on a few major benefactors.