David Cameron's decision to sack several high-performing ministers in last week's reshuffle was "mystifying" and will do nothing to help the party win a majority at the next election, one of the Conservatives' most significant donors has warned.
In a public intervention which echoes the private concerns of a number of Tory MPs, Lord Ashcroft said the removal of several ministers who had concrete achievements to their name could backfire.
His comments came as the new party chairman Grant Shapps admitted for the first time that the Tories have given up hope of boundary changes going through before the next election.
Mr Shapps confirmed that the party will start selecting candidates immediately after November's police commissioner elections on the basis of existing constituency boundaries.
Fighting the election on the current boundaries will make it much harder for the Tories to win an outright majority in 2015. At the last election, the campaigns in many of the Tories' key seats were funded directly by Lord Ashcroft who has given millions of pounds to the party over the years.
But writing yesterday on the political website ConservativeHome, he hinted at dissatisfaction with the reshuffle. "For voters, the reshuffle is part of soap opera politics," he wrote. "[But] that is not to say it was unimportant; it matters to the extent that we are now more, or less, likely to govern well and keep our promises.
"On that score I cannot help but find one or two of the decisions mystifying – the removal of Nick Gibb, for example, who has a concrete achievement to his name (and how many ministers can say that?) in improving the way primary school children are taught to read, makes you wonder whether delivery was the driving factor in all decisions.
"Those who think reshuffles are mainly a tool for 'party management' would do well to remember that it is delivery that wins and loses elections. It is losing parties that are unmanageable, just as winning parties are disciplined, not the other way round."
His comments reflect dissatisfaction among the Conservative backbenches that a number of ministers – such as Mr Gibb and the policing minister Nick Herbert – were sacked despite clearly doing a good job in their ministerial roles. Others like Charles Hendry, the energy minister, were moved to departments outside their areas of expertise.
When Mr Gibb was called to ask Mr Cameron a question at PMQs on Wednesday, he rose to cheers from the backbenches.
Mr Cameron used the occasion to praise Mr Gibb for his "long-standing work on educational standards and his belief in true rigour in schools", adding, "he has seen many of his ideas put into practice, and that is what we come into politics to achieve".
The intervention led one backbencher to ask privately: "If he was so good, why did Cameron decide to sack him then?"