Ashcroft comes up £2m. trumps

THERE'S good news this week for Conservative candidates in Braintree, Harwich, Colchester and Ipswich – former Conservative Party treasurer Lord Ashcroft has reacted to Michael Howard's installation as party leader by establishing a £2 million fighting fund for key marginal constituencies.

THERE'S good news this week for Conservative candidates in Braintree, Harwich, Colchester and Ipswich – former Conservative Party treasurer Lord Ashcroft has reacted to Michael Howard's installation as party leader by establishing a £2 million fighting fund for key marginal constituencies.

Lord Ashcroft is inviting local parties to go direct to him to apply for a share of the money. Braintree's Brooks Newmark will probably by first to the peer's doorstep.

Braintree is a constituency the Tories should never have lost in 1997. The result summed up the despair into which the party had sunk when Tony Newton, the Leader of the House of Commons and a popular MP since 1974, was ejected by Labour's Alan Hurst by 1,451.

Mr Hurst then compounded Tory woes by clinging on in 2001 by 358 votes. It is now one of the top five Tory targets. Harwich is also in the sights of the born again Tories, while Colchester and Ipswich – plus other East of England marginals Great Yarmouth, North Norfolk, Peterborough, Bedford, Hemel Hempstead, Welwyn Hatfield, and St Albans – will be eager for some of the cash. And a number of Tory held marginals will want the comfort of the Ashcroft largesse, including Castle Point in Essex, Norfolk North West, and Bedfordshire South West.


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There is a capped amount that local parties can spend on fighting elections. But in some constituencies, the number of Tory activists has fallen to such an extent that they would find it all but impossible to raise the cash needed for four weeks campaigning.

"I am going directly to the constituencies in those marginal seats and saying to them let's have a look at some of your individual campaigns . . . and find the plan and the appropriate steps that will get the seats in those particular areas," adds Lord Ashcroft.

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Money, of course, neither guarantees nor buys success. The opinion polls indicate the Conservatives are still miles behind Labour. Yet as former Health Secretary Alan Milburn warned yesterday, Labour has to be on its guard. "I think the danger for us is that we sleepwalk towards a general election campaign where the Tories are setting out new policy ideas and they have a new leader. They will claim that they have got new momentum. We don't want to be stuck purely defending our record."

n UK Independence Party Euro MP Jeffrey Titford heads for the lions' den on November 27 when he is the only EU-hostile panellist in a European question time at the University of Essex. To be chaired by Professor Anthony King of the University's Department of Government, others taking part are Professor Emil Kirchner, who holds the Jean Monet chair at Essex, and Euro MPs Christopher Beazley (Tory), Andrew Duff (Lib Dem) and Richard Howitt (Labour).

European question time, which is open to the public, is organised by the UK Office of the European Parliament and takes place between 6-8pm in Lecture Theatre Block 5 on the Wivenhoe Park campus.

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