BIRMINGHAM England - A schism over Europe cast a pall over the final day of Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservative party conference, the last before a national election next year, after a party donor became the latest figure to defect to the anti-EU UKIP party.
Hours before Cameron was due to deliver a keynote speech, Arron Banks, a businessman who electoral records show has given tens of thousands of pounds to Cameron's party, said he was switching his support to the UK Independence Party (UKIP).
His move follows that of two Conservative lawmakers to UKIP, which wants an immediate British EU exit and sharp curbs on immigration, and will ratchet up fears in Cameron's party that UKIP will split the centre-right vote in May 2015 and allow the opposition Labour party to win.
Nigel Farage, UKIP's leader, hailed the defection, which follows that of two Conservative lawmakers, as a sign his insurgent party was attracting big financial backers to bankroll what he has described as an earthquake in British politics.
"The other parties are losing Councillors, MPs and backers to UKIP, not only voters, and they are all playing their part in changing the course of politics in the UK for good," Farage said in a statement. "Our people's army is really starting to grow".
Cameron's party played down the defection with William Hague, a senior Conservative lawmaker, saying Banks was not a senior figure in the party.
"I've never heard of him so we are not going to get too upset about that," Hague told BBC radio. "It's certainly not going to overshadow the prime minister's speech today that someone we haven't heard of has gone to UKIP.
Trailing the opposition Labour party in most opinion polls, Cameron is straining to pacify the Eurosceptic wing of his own party which wants him to offer firmer commitments on changing Britain's relationship with Europe.
He has promised to renegotiate Britain's EU ties if re-elected before holding an EU membership referendum in 2017, but has been coy about spelling out what he wants to change with some Conservatives sceptical about the strength of his resolve.