Nigel Morris: Money talks – and this man wields huge power

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The Independent Online

Lord Ashcroft is playing a pivotal role in David Cameron’s drive to power as he pours millions of pounds into winning the seats that the Tories need to form a government at the next election.

His formal title – deputy party chairman and member of the party board – does not begin to suggest the power he wields over the Conservative machine.

His team of nearly 20 – working from an office bigger than that of the Tory chairman Eric Pickles – is charged with directing operations in marginal seats.

Candidates who want to receive a slice of the Ashcroft money are subjected to intensive interviews and have to provide updates on how the funds are spent if they want to receive more. Just before the last election, Lord Ashcroft and two allies gave £1.3m directly to Tory candidates in marginal seats, funding 24 of the 36 constituencies gained by the party. The money now goes through Conservative headquarters but the impact could be the same at the next election, expected in 2010.

Lord Ashcroft pays for much of the party’s opinion polling and has a crucial role in designing strategy in response to the public mood. His private jet is also at David Cameron’s disposal.

Mr Cameron’s predecessor Michael Howard was said to be uncomfortable with Lord Ashcroft’s influence, with some Tories worrying that he was running “a party within a party” and others privately warning that the mystery could come back to haunt the Conservatives.

But money talks and Lord Ashcroft is set to become more and more powerful in Conservative HQ as polling day approaches.