Low profile United & Cecil Club funnels cash to Conservative must-win marginals

David Cameron’s words in the catalogue for last year’s fundraising auction.

An organisation registered at a stables in the Home Counties, with a former tobacco lobbyist for an honorary secretary, is a key weapon in the Conservative Party’s battle to win the next election.

The United & Cecil Club is playing an increasingly crucial role in funding election bids in the most tightly contested constituencies. The club has been used to raise funds for the Conservatives for years and these funds are now being deployed strategically as the party targets key marginals ahead of the 2015 election.

Since the last election, the organisation has given £282,250 to Conservative candidates  – nearly double the amount it has given to Conservative central campaign headquarters. In the first quarter of this year alone, the U&C club has given almost as much to candidates as it did in the whole of last year. Most of the cash is targeted at key swing seats.

Despite its increasingly important role, little is known about the U&C club. Donations to the club tend to be small and so there is no obligation to identify the donors. Only the identities of individuals making donations of more than £7,500 are published by the Election Commission under disclosure rules.

In disclosures made and published by the Electoral Commission the U&C club is registered at an an address in Iver, a village in Buckinghamshire. However, in the parliamentary register, the U&C lists its address as a riding school in Berkshire.

The stables are run by Tim Lord. Lord, a former chief executive of the Tobacco Manufacturers Association, confirmed to the Bureau that he is honorary secretary of the U&C club.

When asked  to supply further details about the U&C club, Lord declined to elaborate. “We are a club, we have our objective and we comply with the law,” he said.

Christopher Fenwick, a member of the wealthy retail family which has an estimated fortune of £500m, was until recently a former deputy chairman of the organisation, Lord confirmed.

Fenwick hosted a table at last ​week’s Conservative fundraiser at the Hurlingham club, which was focused on the 40 seats to hold and the 40 seats to gain. Last year he sponsored two tables where the table plan showed his guests included U&C chairman, Brooks Newmark MP and Anne-Marie Trev​elyn, a Tory hopeful who is bidding to win the Lib Dem marginal seat of Berwick-​up​on-Tweed.

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The Tories have been criticised in the past for taking money from organisations which lack clarity about the identity of their donors. The Midlands Industrial Council, an organisation based in a small Lincolnshire village, was for years used to channel money to the party from wealthy businessmen who wanted to keep their donations private.

“The Tories have learned the language of modern government,” said Tamasin Cave of Spinwatch who leads the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency coalition. “They talk about transparency and fairness but the reality is they are continuing with an antiquated way of doing things, like secret donor clubs.”

A Tory spokesman said: “All donations to the Conservative party are properly and transparently declared to the Electoral Commission, published by them, and comply fully with Electoral Commission rules.”

Analysis by the Bureau reveals that hundreds of thousands of pounds have already been donated to Tory candidates ahead of next year’s election, one that polsters suggest may produce the tightest result in living memory.

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With Labour having to rely largely on the unions for funding, the Bureau’s analysis shows that leading Tory hopefuls are powering ahead in the sums raised.

Political funding and the way this money is raised has been thrown into sharp relief following the Tories’ annual fundraising dinner, held last week at the exclusive Hurlingham Club in south west London.

The event proved a huge money-spinner with oligarchs, Middle Eastern businessmen and City financiers vying to bid huge sums at an auction that raised, according to those there, £500,000 for David Cameron’s party.

At this year’s dinner a Russian banker – the wife of a former Kremlin deputy finance minister – paid £160,000 to play tennis with David Cameron and Boris Johnson. A bottle of champagne signed by Margaret Thatcher went for £45,000 with a pot of honey fetching £20,000.

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Bids were made using ‘spotters’ who patrolled the event carrying wands. When a bid was placed a wand was illuminated.

The total sum raised from this year’s event is currently unknown. But last year’s fundraiser, attended by 449 guests who sat at tables costing up to £12,000 each, ​saw a £1.1m spike in donations in the week following the event​, according to filings registered with the Electoral Commission and analysed by the Bureau.

Much of this money is finding its way to the marginal seats which have hitherto benefited from former Tory party treasurer Lord Ashcroft, who has given the party millions of pounds down the years, but has now turned off the tap, according to his spokesman.

The Bureau’s analysis shows that, since the last election, some £321,182 has gone to Tory candidates contesting the 20 most marginal seats in Britain – compared with just £74,545 to their Labour rivals.

The Lib Dems have spent more than £183,000 across the same 20 seats – their figures are skewed by £84,000 ploughed into fighting Dorset Mid and Poole North.

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Outside of the top 20 tightest marginals, the Tories are also doing well in the fundraising stakes. David Warburton, who will contest the Lib Dem seat of Somerton and Frome, has received almost £60,000 since 2010. Anne-Marie Trevelyan, fighting Berwick-upon-Tweed, another Lib Dem seat, has received almost £50,000. Michelle Donelan, bidding to take the Lib Dem seat of Chippenham, has received £43,000 in donations and Rebecca Pow, targeting the Lib Dem seat of Taunton Deane, almost £25,000.

According to Electoral Commission records, Alexander Temerko, a Russian businessman with offshore wind interests in the north east, who paid £90,000 for a bust of David Cameron at last year’s Tory party fundraiser, has donated almost £9,000 in campaign materials to Trevelyan and has also backed Tory MPs Michael Ellis, James Wharton and Guto Bebb, all of whom command  slim majorities.

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The United & Cecil Club is the biggest funder of Tory candidates in the ten most marginal seats in the country. Its seven largest donations since the election have gone to key swing seats such as Weaver Vale, Bury North, Carlisle and Cheadle.

Targeting marginals will help determine who wins the next election, according to experts. A poll carried out for Ashcroft across 26 of the most closely contested constituencies in May – suggested that there had been a 6.5% swing from the Conservatives to Labour. If repeated nationally this would be enough to topple 83 Tory MPs and give Ed Miliband a majority, according to Ashcroft.

But, as he wrote a couple of months ago on his website, ‘half of voters say they may change their mind before the election – and there is still a year to go’.

A version of this story appeared in The Observer