David Cameron has ordered a drive to increase the number of black and Asian Conservative parliamentary candidates, amid fears within the party that its unpopularity among ethnic minorities could spell disaster at the next election.
The Prime Minister has told colleagues that he regards building support among voters from immigrant backgrounds as the biggest challenge facing the Tories in their quest to "detoxify" their image among large sections of the community.
Senior party figures are pointing to last month's defeat for the Republican candidate Mitt Romney – who was largely shunned by black and Hispanic voters – in the US presidential election as a warning of the costs of ignoring Britain's rapid demographic shifts.
One Conservative MP in a marginal urban seat told The Independent that his party faced an "existential" challenge in responding to the country's changing ethnic make-up. MPs and candidates are being given advice on how to engage with non-white communities by regularly attending key events, being urged to increase their presence in ethnic minority newspapers, radio programmes and television bulletins and to gain expertise on issues that particularly affect such groups.
The Tories said they were basing the strategy on the success of the governing Conservative Party of Canada, which boosted its electoral fortunes partly by increasing its support among voters born outside the country.
The party insists its core messages – including support for small business and defence of the family – resonate with many ethnic minorities, but admits it is hampered by a "brand" problem among such groups.
The Reading West MP Alok Sharma, the Tory vice-chairman in charge of the strategy, said Mr Cameron supported increasing the diversity of Conservative parliamentary candidates and MPs.
Mr Sharma said he hoped the party and Parliament would come to be "reflective of the country we live in". He said: "I very much hope that over a period of time there will be many more people from ethnic minority backgrounds on the Conservative benches, but also all benches."
Although the Conservatives increased their number of black and Asian MPs from two to 11 at the last election, alarm bells were sounded in party headquarters by their 16 per cent support among ethnic minorities compared with the 68 per cent picked up by Labour.
Unless they can close the gap, their poor polling among non-white communities threatens their control of between 10 and 15 parliamentary seats and undermines their hopes of capturing 10 to 15 other seats held by Labour with small majorities.
Research presented privately to party leaders revealed that people from Afro-Caribbean and Pakistani backgrounds are most hostile to the Conservatives, but that other ethnic minorities including Sikhs and Hindus – even those who regard themselves as middle class – are resistant to Tory messages.
They have been told the Conservatives suffer a serious "brand" problem dating back to Enoch Powell's "rivers of blood" speech. It has been fuelled by such episodes as Norman Tebbit talking about the "cricket test" for immigrants and the institutional failures exposed by the murder of the black schoolboy Stephen Lawrence, which occurred under a Tory government.
Gavin Barwell, the MP for Croydon Central, warned the party could not win the next election without significantly increasing its appeal to minority communities.
He said: "The Prime Minister, and people around him, understand this and are focused on it. The party as a whole is increasingly focused on it and the number of colleagues who understand this is growing all the time.
"In the long term it's an existential issue for the party. In the short term we have got to focus on everybody who didn't vote for us at the last election."
A prominent member of the Tory Reform Group, Samuel Kasumu, who joined the Conservatives at the age of 19, said: "There was a party that didn't look like me but sounded like me – that was the Tories. And there was a party that looked like me but didn't sound like me – Labour."
Changing face of the Tories ethnic minority MPs
Helen Grant (MP for Maidstone and the Weald)
The family lawyer, brought up by a white single mother on a Carlisle council estate, said in 2010: "I'm part of a changing face of the Tory party. Together we are a truer and better reflection of modern Britain."
Alok Sharma (Reading West)
The Indian-born MP wiped out Labour's 5,000 majority to claim Reading West in 2010. He has worked on a factory production line, as a company auditor, tutored students, and run a consulting firm.
Priti Patel (Witham)
William Hague's former press secretary, who is the daughter of Ugandan immigrants, said this year: "Many Asian communities are entrepreneurial and very Conservative. We have made real progress as a party in reaching out to them."
Sam Gyimah (East Surrey)
The former banker, who spent much of his childhood in Ghana, was appointed David Cameron's parliamentary private secretary earlier this year.
Sajid Javid (Bromsgrove)
The son of a bus driver was recently appointed Treasury Secretary. Mr Javid is "proud" of his Pakistani and Muslim heritage and has said: "For too long we have championed an ideology of multiculturalism which has created divides rather than broken them down."