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Did Ashcroft pay for the calendars, Mr Cameron?

It was reported yesterday that campaign calendars distributed by Dagenham and Rainham Conservatives ‘airbrushed out' ethnic minority candidates from photos. The founder of Operation Black Vote has alleged that the calendars, which also feature a large image of David Cameron, ‘pander' to race hatred.

And the significance of this apparent reluctance to promote non-white candidates goes beyond the local campaign. The Conservative candidate for the seat, described as a ‘Young Turk' close to David Cameron, is a former employee of Lord Ashcroft. Together with Ashcroft he has helped coordinate the party's overall strategy for ‘target seats'.

Tory Stories has found that it was Ashcroft's wife, Susan Anstey, who just last year donated £5000 to Dagenham and Rainham Conservatives' war chest.

Given the donation, and Ashcroft's proximity to this particular Tory candidate, it might reasonably be asked whether he or his office were involved in the funding and production of the offending leaflets. After all, Ashcroft himself has made it clear that his ‘target seats unit' is very closely involved in Tory campaigns in constituencies such as Dagenham and Rainham:

"In the run-up to the 2005 Election I "did my own thing" because I did not believe that the Party was targeting its resources effectively and that a ruthless focus on winnable target seats would deliver results. Things have changed. I am delighted that David Cameron and Francis Maude have asked me, as Deputy Chairman with responsibility for target seats, to apply this approach right across the Party. My team will deliver a highly focused campaign working with our candidates from the day they are selected. There is no room now for any mavericks running solo operations"

So was the omission of photos of ethnic minority candidates from the calendars the product of one such ‘maverick'? Did it slip through the Tory party's rigorous vetting process? Or was it part of a ‘ruthless focus' on winning the seat, funded from Ashcroft's own pocket?

Lord Ashcroft has long been accused of undermining standards in British politics and today's revelation leaves unanswered questions as to the extent of his involvement in further highly negative electoral practices.