'Ashcroft money' casts long shadow over rivals

Andy McSmith visits the constituencies the Conservatives have lavished with cash

The slogan on Michael Ashcroft's official website declares that his heart is in Belize, in Central America. That may be so, but his political influence is everywhere, most notably in dozens of the most sensitive parliamentary seats in this country.

Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs in marginal constituencies have been increasingly alarmed by the amount of money the Conservatives are lavishing on winning these crucial contests that could decide who governs Britain for the next five years. That money is being directed into local Tory associations by a small unit based in Conservative Central Office, headed by a billionaire Tory peer who is notoriously shy about declaring whether or not he pay taxes in the UK.

The Ashcroft money, as it is loosely called, could even be the secret ingredient that enables the Tories to turn the forthcoming election from score draw to outright victory. The sums are impressive. Analysis by The Independent of local Conservative Association accounts has revealed that Lord Ashcroft's unit dispersed more than £1.1m in two years to local associations in the seats the Tories are keenest to win.

The cash grants are not all that Conservative head office does for the associations in marginal seats. One of the other services is the telephone canvassing, which does not show up on local association accounts. A hazard of living in a marginal seat these days is that the telephone rings at home, and at the other end of the line is someone calling on behalf of the Tories, not to ask for your vote but to ask what's on your mind. If you tell them that it is the crime rate, or dog poo, you will be contacted soon afterwards with news that the Conservative candidate is taking a tough stand on crime, or dog poo.

Mark Formosa, the hard-working Conservative candidate in Taunton, in Somerset, emphasises that voters who answer these surveys or contact the Tories by any other way are not fobbed off with format letters. Every complaint is personally followed up by him or by a local councillor "and we take action."

The term "Ashcroft money" does not exclusively refer to money that has come out of Lord Ashcroft's pockets. He was bankrolling the Conservative Party virtually on his own 10 years ago, but the shadow Commons Leader, Sir George Young, said earlier this month that his personal contribution is down to about 5 per cent of party income. That implies that Lord Ashcroft donated £500,000 in the last quarter of 2009, but the correct figure may be lower.

The "Ashcroft money" is the fund he controls, which shows up on association accounts as grants from Conservative headquarters. One of the most generous is the annual grant invested in the Pendle Conservative Association, which in 2007 was £19,375, about 40 per cent of the association's total income for that year. Pendle's Labour MP, Gordon Prentice, has conducted a relentless campaign to try to unearth whether Lord Ashcroft is a UK taxpayer, as he promised he would be when awarded his peerage 10 years ago.

But Mr Prentice will probably be unseated at the general election and replaced by Andrew Stephenson, a 29-year-old insurance broker who identifies himself as an out and out Tory moderniser, in the Cameron mould. Labour's majority in Pendle is a slender 2,180. In 2008, the Tories spent a total of more than £82,700 in this one seat, around four times as much as the Labour Party.

Mr Stephenson insists that Lord Ashcroft's real contribution in seats like this is not the money he personally contributes, but the discipline he imposes by compelling local associations to draw up business plans before they are awarded grants. That makes the candidates and their local associations think ahead and work out better ways to raise their own funds.

He and Mr Formosa both pointed out that sitting MPs are paid £10,000 a year in "communications allowances" which they can use to distribute literature in their constituencies which often borders on the party political. David Cameron has called for the allowance to be abolished.

Whether Mr Formosa can succeed in unseating Taunton's Liberal Democrat MP, Jeremy Browne, is not so easily forecast. Although Mr Browne's majority is an almost negligible 573, there is a boundary change that will help him, and incumbent Liberal Democrats have a record of doing better than national polls predict.

Having sold the café business that he took over from his mother when he was 17, Mr Formosa, a former comprehensive schoolboy, is now a full-time candidate, living locally. He can also outspend the Liberal Democrats. In 2008, his association's income was more than £55,000, including £5,865 in Ashcroft money, while the Liberal Democrats' was just over £26,500.

Mr Formosa is adamant that none of the leaflets or newspaper advertising that money can buy is as valuable as the word of mouth effect of meeting people and taking up local concerns. It is, of course, conceivable that all the money spent on glossy propaganda is wasted. But one of the most important factors in elections is name recognition. Most voters do not know their MP's name, let alone other candidates, but in Pendle and in Taunton it is surprisingly easy to find people who have registered the name of the Tory challenger.

John Kane, a Taunton taxi driver said: "The Conservative candidate's name is Mark Formosa. He seems to have his finger in every pie. He's always campaigning about something." Anne Ward, who works in the accounts department of a Taunton firm, said: "We get a lot of leaflets, but honestly I put them straight in the recycle. I know the Tory's called Mark Somebody."

Alan Hargreaves, a landlord who owns five properties in Colne, in the centre of Pendle constituency, said: "We've been regularly getting all these glossy brochures all from – what's he called? – Stephenson, the would-be MP for this area. We had a horrible flurry of activity in support of someone in a local election. It looked to me like Conservative Central Office stuff. It wasn't even very subtle."

Some people think – or hope - that the sheer volume of Tory literature flooding into their constituencies will set off a voter reaction. Alan Newboult, a devout Labour voter living in a rural part of Pendle, said: "After a while people get fed up with what they see as political propaganda. I talk to people in the pubs and the cafés and they feel that the Tories are trying to buy the seat."

That is probably a vain hope. In politics, as in everything else, money counts, and the Tories have a great deal of money, being shrewdly put to use by a billionaire whose tax status is one of Westminster's closest secrets.

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