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CASHCROFT BOUGHT 19 SEATS; TORIES IN TURMOIL SLEAZE FROM BELIZE.

Byline: SUSIE BONIFACE

TAX-DODGING Tory Lord Ashcroft's enormous wealth helped "buy" 19 key seats for his party at the last election.

The billionaire peer channelled pounds 1million to 75 marginal constituencies through his company Bearwood Corporate Services.

The money went on glossy newsletters and brochures for Tory candidates who started campaigning long before the vote was called and spending rules kicked in.

An analysis of the seats by the Sunday Mirror has revealed Ashcroft's money sparked a switch of tens of thousands of voters from Labour to Tory. The "swing" to the Tories averaged 4.7pc in 19 key seats compared with the 3pc national average.

In Hammersmith and Fulham in West London, he spent more than pounds 42,000, producing a huge swing of 7.3 per cent. A seat Labour had won with 2,015 more votes than the Tories in 2001 fell to the Tories, who had 5,029 more votes than Labour.

The election saw Tony Blair back with a majority cut to 64. The Tories picked up an extra 33 MPs and the Lib Dems 11.

Of the extra Tory seats, 19 had been targeted by Ashcroft, who it was revealed this week had saved an estimated pounds 127million from his "non-dom" tax status over 10 years.

The Tory deputy chairman, whose business is based offshore in Belize, had lavished funds on the seats for more than a year in advance, dwarfing the spend by Labour. This May, with the election likely to be tight, the money he has been spending is vital to David Cameron's dream of becoming PM.

Andy Slau g h t e r, standing for Labour for Hammersmith, said: "In a vote which is going to Banking be as close as this looks like it will be, that could be the difference between a Tory or a Labour government. It means money is deciding an election rather than the voters." In 2005 election rules confined candidates to spending no more than pounds 7,150 plus 5p per voter on campaigning in the 17 days before polling day, once Parliament was dissolved. But there were no limits before that so Ashcroft could make huge donations to constituency associations for unofficial campaigning. This time funding is limited to pounds 25,000 plus 5p per voter in the five months before the election.

Candidates had to apply for the cash to Tory campaign boss Stephen Gilbert, Ashcroft's right-hand man. Chris Gillen, who helped run the campaign for then Labour MP Melanie Johnson in Welwyn Hatfield, said: "Our Tory opponent was able to spend about 14 times what we could. He ran a very professional campaign backed by an enormous amount of money for four years, and it made a significant difference to the end result."

Ms Johnson was opposed by Grant Shapps, now shadow housing minister. Mr Gillen said: "He was able to pay about pounds 30,000 a year for a full-time agent, who spent their days writing press releases and getting him in the local paper, while we had a part-time volunteer and could spend next to zero." British-based Bearwood, funded by Ashcroft's business interests in Belize, was the subject of an 18-month investigation by the Electoral Commission over claims that its donations were illegal because the firm did not trade in the UK.

The investigation found the cash was legal - but only after top Tories refused to co-operate with the inquiry and the Commission said it had "limited powers" to investigate further.

The Commission found Bearwood did not make enough money to fund its political donations. According to accounts filed at Companies House, funds came from a company with the same name as one registered at the address in Belize of Ashcroft's main business, Belize Bank.

COMMENT: PAGE 14

ILFORD NORTH Tory Lee Scott beat Labour candidate Linda Perham

Spend: Two donations totalling pounds 10,604.52

Swing: 4.6% CLWYD WEST Tory David Jones beat Labour's Gareth Thomas

Spend: Two donations totalling pounds 15,000

Swing: 1.8% CROYDON CENTRAL Tory Andrew Pelling beat Labour's Geraint Davies

Spend: One donation of pounds 10,000

Swing: 4.4% SHIPLEY Tory Philip Davies beat Labour's Christopher Leslie

Spend: Two donations toalling pounds 14,148.93

Swing: 2% WELWYN HATFIELD Tory Grant Shapps, now shadow housing minister, beat Labour's Melanie Johnson

Spend: One donation of pounds 15,000

Swing: 8% GRAVESHAM Tory Adam Holloway beat Labour's Chris Pond

Spend: Three donations totalling pounds 25,000

Swing: 6.3% MONMOUTH Tory David Davies beat Labour's Huw Edwards

Spend: One donation of pounds 5000

Swing: 5.4% HARWICH Tory Douglas Carswell beat Labour's Ivan Henderson

Spend: Three donations totalling pounds 10,999.70

Swing: 3.6%

BRAINTREE Tory Brooks Newmark beat Labour's Alan Hurst

Spend: Three donations totalling pounds 22,080.28

Swing: 4% MILTON KEYNES In Milton Keynes North East Tory Mark Lancaster beat Labour's Brian White. Labour held south west.

Spend: Two donations totalling pounds 27,230.08

Swing: 3.6% PRESELI Tory Stephen Crabb beat Labour's Sue Hayman

Spend: Two donations, pounds 13,500

Swing: 4.8% PETERBOROUGH Tory Stewart Jackson, now a shadow minister for communities beat Labour's Helen Clark

Spend: Three donations totalling pounds 14,479.54

Swing: 6.9% PUTNEY Tory Justine Greening, now a shadow minister for communities, beat Labour's Tony Colman

Spend: Two donations totalling pounds 14,433.47

Swing: 6.5% TORRIDGE & WEST DEVON Tory Geoffrey Cox beat Lib Dem David Walter

Spend: Four donations totalling pounds 15,000

Swing: 3.9% HORNCHURCH Tory James Brokenshire, now shadow home affairs minister, beat Labour's John Cryer

Spend: Four donations totalling pounds 19,025.92

Swing: 2.7% READING EAST Tory Rob Wilson beat Labour's Tony Page

Spend: Two donations, total pounds 9932.93

Swing: 6.9% SCARBOROUGH AND WHITBY Tory Robert Goodwill beat Labour's Lawrence Quinn

Spend: One donation of pounds 8,821.08

Swing: 5.1% HAMMERSMITH & FULHAM Tory Greg Hands, now shadow treasury minister beat Labour's Melanie Smallman

Spend: Three donations totalling pounds 42,333.33

Swing: 7.3% WELLINGBOROUGH Tory Peter Bone beat Labour's Paul Stinchcombe

Spend: One donation of pounds 9,895

Swing: 2.9%

MICHAEL Ashcroft has an estimated pounds 1.1billion fortune - most of it tax-free in Belize, where his father was a civil servant.

HE started his empire at the age of 26 when he bought a loss-making cleaning firm for pounds 1, turned it round and then sold it for pounds 1.3million.

IN 1972 he married secretary Wendy Mahoney. They had three children, James, Sarah and Andrew, who now runs the British Caribbean Bank - which is owned by his father.

IN the mid-1980s the couple "drifted apart, with no acrimony on either side to this day", according to Ashcroft, and he married his PA Susan Anstey.

HE owns more than 160 Victoria Cross medals which he has loaned to the Imperial War Museum to go on display later this year.

HE owns a 42 per cent stake in Watford Football Club.

THE TORY GAINS HE BANKROLLED

THESE are the 19 seats Lord Ashcroft helped the Tories gain in the 2005 General Election. Our list shows the candidates, total donations made by Ashcroft and the percentage swing in votes from Labour to the Conservatives since the previous 2001 election.

CAPTION(S):

Polling in it...Lord Ashcroft's cash is vital to Cameron's Tories Banking on it...Belize, Ashcroft's base
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Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Mar 7, 2010
Words:1229
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