David Cameron is today accused by a senior Cabinet minister of attempting to "buy" victory at the general election with a US-style campaign dominated by advertising.
Writing in The Independent, Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, predicts the Tory campaign will be the most lavish in political history and denounces Mr Cameron for relying heavily on cash supplied by the party's deputy chairman, Lord Ashcroft, who has extensive business interests in Belize.
His provocative attack comes as the Conservatives prepare to launch a pre-election mini-manifesto next week backed by a flurry of advertising. Party chiefs are planning to unveil a succession of new policies in an attempt to persuade wavering voters they can offer a weighty programme for government.
With no limit on spending until an election is called, Mr Straw's comments also reflect Labour fears that the party is already being heavily outspent in the battle for crucial marginal constituencies. Lord Ashcroft is charge of the drive to capture those seats for the Tories.
Although Labour received donations totalling £2.25m before Christmas from three wealthy supporters, Labour's financial woes also mean it could struggle to match the Conservatives during the campaign.
The Justice Secretary writes: "At the same time that Mr Cameron tells the British people we face 'austerity', he has ordered his party to fight the most expensive election campaign in British political history.
"It is an American-style campaign costing millions, with wealthy suitors each paying £50,000 to join David Cameron's dining club, and British high streets covered with billboards bankrolled from Belize. Mr Cameron says the Conservatives have changed but what we are seeing is an attempt by his party to buy the next general election."
He claims the Tory leader, "will say, do and spend almost anything to stop the general election campaign being about policy beyond a slogan on a billboard". But Mr Straw insists: "Regardless of whether it's free flights from foreign companies or billboards bought ultimately from Belize, it doesn't matter how much money Mr Cameron throws at this campaign. The closer we get to the election, the more the Tory policies will come under scrutiny."
In the 2005 election campaign Labour outspent the Conservatives for the first time, spending £17.94m to the Tories' £17.85m. Four years earlier the Conservative spent £12.77m against the £11.14m bill run up by Labour. The party spent £27m in the two and half years before Tony Blair's landslide victory in 1997 compared with expenditure of £28.3 by the Tories in the run-up to the election.
Today Labour's current debts are more than twice those of the Tories and according to the Electoral Commission the Conservatives raised £5,269,186 for their election war-chest between July and September, compared with £3,045,377 given to Labour.
In his New Year's message today, Gordon Brown will seek to contrast Tory warnings of austerity ahead with an upbeat, optimistic message. In a podcast for the Downing Street website, he will predict that unemployment will fall in 2010 and numbers of small businesses setting up will increase. The Prime Minister will attempt to deflect charges that Labour is plotting a "class war" attack on Mr Cameron.
He will say: "The recovery is still fragile and it needs to be nurtured in the interests of those who were hit hardest by the recession – the people on middle and modest incomes who don't want any special favours."
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