Ukip forces Tories on to the back foot in battle for marginal seats

Election funds go to fighting marginal seats at the expense of target constituencies

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Indy Politics

The threat from Ukip over Europe and immigration has forced the Conservatives to divert their election war chest towards seats that they are defending more than at their target seats, new figures revealed last night.

Of the £2.5m in donations given directly to Conservative local associations in the key seat battleground, £1.56m, or 63 per cent, has gone to the 50 seats with their smallest majorities – their defensive seats – while £862,000, or 37 per cent, has gone to the 40 constituencies the party needs to win – their offensive seats.

The figures were calculated from Electoral Commission data and analysed by the Labour Party, which claimed that David Cameron was “running scared” of the threat from Ed Miliband. Yet the shift in money is more likely to be a squeeze on Tory support in their most marginal seats from Ukip. In the Eastern region, where Ukip’s threat to the Tories is the most potent, 97 per cent of Tory donations has gone into defensive seats, while in the South-east the figure is 86 per cent and in London, 67 per cent. Even in the North-west, where the Conservatives have a handful of seats, 90 per cent of the cash has gone into the defensive battleground.

Shadow Cabinet Office minister Michael Dugher said: “The Tories are running scared and raising the white flag. The Tories are calling in their wealthy backers to bankroll their defensive seats because they know out-of-touch David Cameron can’t beat Ed Miliband. David Cameron’s party is haemorrhaging members and is increasingly reliant on a small pool of big-money donors.”

Two years ago, Tory chairman Grant Shapps said his party would show “no mercy” in going for its 40-seat offensive strategy and grabbing seats from the Liberal Democrats and Labour. At the Conservative Party conference earlier this month, senior Tories said they were sticking to the offensive strategy, but the donation spending appears to tell a different story. Two defections to Ukip and success for Nigel Farage with Douglas Carswell’s win in Clacton, plus the prospect of Ukip seizing Rochester next month, will only fuel the sense that the Conservatives are playing a defensive strategy.

The Prime Minister is under greater pressure to stave off the threat from Ukip following the surprise £1.7bn levy imposed by the European Commission on UK last week. Despite Mr Cameron’s robust refusal to pay the money at a tumultuous summit in Brussels on Friday, the development handed a crucial propaganda victory to Mr Farage.

It is understood that the final figure presented to finance ministers in an emergency summit next month could be even higher. Downing Street sources said that Mr Cameron was not only angry at the size of the surcharge but also the way it was handled – with EU officials handing down the figures to UK departmental officials rather than the commission to the PM directly “with no appreciation of the implications”.

“Several days later there is still not clarity from the commission about where this figure actually comes from,” said a No 10 source. George Osborne is to attend the emergency summit of finance ministers on 7 November and the Chancellor will speak to his German counterpart, Wolfgang Schäuble, and others when they meet at the global forum on tax transparency in Berlin this week.

Senior Treasury officials are meeting this weekend and will talk to finance ministers from other nations hit with a levy – including the Netherlands, Italy and Greece – ahead of the finance ministers’ summit.

Yesterday, questions intensified over who in Whitehall knew what, and when, about the £1.7bn bill. The Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Chris Leslie, wrote to Mr Osborne demanding to know how long the Government has known about the surcharge. The Chancellor revealed that he had known since Tuesday. Mr Cameron found out about the levy only when he was on his way to the EU summit on Thursday. However, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) published a report four months ago detailing changes made to UK growth figures and explicitly stated this was for use in calculation of a member state’s contribution to the EU budget.

Mr Leslie wrote: “These surcharges are the conclusion of a process launched in 2011 by the European statistics agency Eurostat, and cited by the ONS in 2012, which was designed to harmonise the GNI calculations for EU nations … The public deserves answers, not just posturing, on a matter which could see billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money lost.”

The Chancellor had a number of questions to answer, he said, including when were Treasury officials first aware that this process could lead to higher charges for the UK; when was he made aware of the possibility of a surcharge for the UK emerging from this process; did he or ministers raise with officials at the ONS, Treasury or Foreign Office any concerns about this emerging issue; was the Treasury minister David Gauke aware of the potential for this surcharge when the EU budget was debated in Parliament at the European Budget Committee earlier this month; and why did he fail to make these surcharges public when he was notified of them.