The Conservative Party has insisted that its election candidates are selected on individual merit, following reports that leader David Cameron has ordered a drive to increase the number of black and Asian people standing to become Tory MPs.
The Independent reported that Mr Cameron is concerned that his party's unpopularity among voters from ethnic minority backgrounds could damage its prospects of winning an overall majority at the general election planned for 2015.
One Conservative MP in a marginal urban seat told the paper that increasing ethnic minority support was an "existential" issue for the long-term future of the Conservatives and was a growing focus of attention for the PM and senior party figures.
The number of black and Asian Conservative MPs jumped from two to 11 at the 2010 election, but the party secured only 16% of the ethnic minority vote, compared with 68% by Labour. The importance of ethnic voting patterns was highlighted by the US presidential election defeat of Republican Mitt Romney, which has been widely blamed on his failure to win over Hispanic and African-American voters.
Croydon Central MP Gavin Barwell told The Independent that the party needs to increase its appeal to minority communities.
"The Prime Minister and people around him understand this and are focused on it. The party as a whole is increasingly focused on it and the number of colleagues who understand this is growing all the time," said Mr Barwell.
"In the long term it's an existential issue for the party. In the short term we have got to focus on everybody who didn't vote for us at the last election."
MPs and candidates are understood to have received advice on how to engage with non-white communities by attending events, developing expertise on issues of concern and appearing in ethnic minority media.
Conservative vice-chairman Alok Sharma, who is in charge of the party's strategy for ethnic minority communities, said: "I very much hope that over a period of time there will be many more people from ethnic minority backgrounds on the Conservative benches, but also all benches."
A Conservative Party spokesman said: "The Conservative Party welcomes and encourages applications from every part of British society. Conservative Party candidates are selected individually on merit."