AS MAYOR of an upmarket Hampshire town Barry Dunning was delighted to accept an invitation to attend a fundraising dinner hosted by local Tories.

Cllr Dunning, a Conservative member of Lymington and Pennington Town Council, was more than happy to rub shoulders with fellow members of the party faithful.

But Lymington’s first citizen is today at the centre of a “dinnergate” row after it emerged that his two tickets were funded by the taxpayer.

On Friday the Tory-run council apologised for what it called an “innocent and genuine error” and said there was never any intention to misuse public money.

But Cllr Dunning is facing calls to resign as mayor and issue a public apology – despite agreeing to reimburse the authority.

The £25-a-head fundraiser was held at the South Lawn Hotel in Lymington Road, Milford on Sea, and included a speech by Fareham MP Suella Fernandes.

Jack Davies, the only Liberal Democrat on the council, said £50 of taxpayers’ cash was used to pay for tickets to New Forest West Conservative Association’s Red, White and Blue Dinner last November.

Cllr Davies complained that the authority had effectively given public money to a political party.

He added: “I’m calling on the mayor to do the decent thing and resign from his position to allow somebody else to take the reins.”

Cllr Davies is also urging Cllr Dunning to apologise to residents, saying the mayor should have paid for the tickets out of his own pocket.

The town clerk, Caroline Godfrey, said the invitation was one of many he received last year.

She added: “It was treated by town council staff as an invite to the mayor in his official capacity as civic leader. The ticket price was paid for out of the mayor’s allowance and authorised by myself.”

Mrs Godfrey said she returned from leave on Monday and was told about the complaint lodged by Cllr Davies.

She added: “I investigated and established it had been a Conservative-only invite list. I asked the mayor to repay the full amount to the council, which he did immediately.

“This was an innocent and genuine error. There was never any intent to misuse public funds in any way.”

Last night Cllr Dunning, who attended the dinner with his wife Carol, refused to stand down, saying it was an office error and “not a resigning matter”.

John O’Connell, chief executive of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, added: “Residents will be pleased that the money has rightly been returned.

“But it is of paramount importance that public officials do not spend a single penny of taxpayers’ money on any sort of political activity. That is simply unacceptable and our elected representatives need to be mindful of this.”

Emma Lane, chairman of the association, said: “It was a misunderstanding that has now been rectified. To me it’s a non-issue.”