Ashcroft's election war-chest targets marginals

Investigation by The Independent reveals Tory donor's strategy to clinch election win

The Tories have spent £6m over two years in the parliamentary seats that hold the key to general election victory, an investigation by The Independent has found. A drive for votes masterminded, and largely funded, by the Conservative deputy chairman, Lord Ashcroft, has seen party headquarters pump more than £1.1m into the coffers of constituency parties in Britain's most marginal seats.

Tory activists raised another £5m locally to build up huge cash reserves in seats they need to win with a small swing. The Conservatives, whose spring conference opens in Brighton today, need to gain 117 seats to put David Cameron in Downing Street with a majority of one.

An analysis of the accounts of Tory associations in those constituencies by The Independent shows they received a massive influx of cash from Conservative headquarters in 2007 and 2008. More than 50 were handed a total of £1,145,484 over the two years. Local donations, bequests and fundraising accounted for a further £4,983,460, resulting in a joint income of £6,128,944 in those associations.

Candidates from other parties have repeatedly complained they have been massively outspent in campaigning in marginal seats in recent years.

The Independent survey found that in Harlow, where Labour is defending a wafer-thin majority of 230, the Conservatives received £121,800 (of which £29,084 came from party headquarters) over the two years. That is equivalent to £1,050 for every voter the Tories need to change his or her mind.

The largest handout to a single constituency from headquarters was the £55,777 given to Solihull Tories. The largely suburban West Midlands seat was a surprise Liberal Democrat gain at the last election. Boundary changes mean it now has a notional Tory majority of 124.

As well as the money that was sent directly to associations, the Ashcroft team has also provided campaigning support funded by Conservative headquarters.

One cabinet minister told The Independent yesterday: "The Tories have already poured millions into the marginal seats. It is bound to have an effect."

During 2007 and 2008, few Labour or Liberal Democrat local parties received large enough incomes to be required to declare them to the Electoral Commission.

The Tories' financial muscle was underlined this week when they disclosed almost £10.5m in gifts towards their election war chest in the last three months of 2009. Labour collected £4,962,886 over the period, while the Liberal Democrats received £1,055,717.

The Conservatives will spend close to the £18m legal limit in the general election campaign – more than double the amount Labour is expected to raise.

But there is still concern within the Tory leadership that the huge spend is not being reflected in opinion polls which have recently narrowed, and now suggest a hung parliament.

As a result Mr Cameron will tomorrow seek to halt the slide by promising "radical change" and ditching a strategy of reassuring voters. Mr Cameron, who will speak without notes, will tell the conference he has changed his party and now has the policies to make "real and immediate change" in the country.

The Tory leadership will today unveil six key campaign pledges following criticism from MPs and grassroots members that they have failed to spell out their policies clearly enough.

Yesterday a ComRes poll for the BBC showed that 36 per cent of people do not know what the Tories stand for. Another 28 per cent say they know what the party stands for and don't like it, whole only 28 per cent both know and like what the party stands for.

The Tories' six key promises are to:

*Reduce the public deficit more quickly than Labour so that mortgage rates stay lower for longer.

*Boost enterprise by cutting corporation tax rates, abolishing taxes on the first 10 jobs created by new firms, promoting green jobs, and getting people off welfare and into work.

*Help families by freezing the council tax, raising the basic state pension, recognising marriage in the tax system, providing extra health visitors, and fighting back against crime.

*Increase health spending every year.

*Raise standards in schools by giving teachers the powers to restore discipline, and create new, smaller schools.

*Cut the number of MPs and slim down Whitehall and quangos by a third.

Tory leaders have rejected calls by grassroots members to put immigration higher up the agenda and there is also no mention of the environment.

However, Cameron aides insist the six pledges are not an exhaustive policy list but the areas where the party offered immediate change.

The Independent survey found that Conservatives in the City of Chester constituency, currently held by Labour by 973, collected £222,603 over the two years – or £457 per voter it must win over.

The Tories in Westminster North, recently beset by infighting over the selection of "Cameron cutie" Joanne Cash as their candidate, collected £319,840. Labour, which is defending a precarious majority of 2,120, was more than £200,000 poorer than its challengers, receiving £110,871 in the two years.

Lord Ashcroft is both in charge of, and substantially bankrolls, Tory campaigning in many marginal seats. A company he controls has given £4.7m in gifts to the Conservatives. The donations are being investigated by the Electoral Commission.

The Tories confirmed last year that Lord Ashcroft was the party's biggest benefactor in 2008, but stressed his companies only provided 6 per cent of its income.

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