In this country we like to think of our political system as being relatively free from the sort of corruption you often read about elsewhere. But the truth is, where money is concerned, there will always be a perception of wrongdoing even if there is none. If you want to make two and two equal five when you see six figure sums donated to political parties it’s easy to do so. Surely, you think, if someone donates that sum of money, they must want something in return? And if so, what is it? There are three sorts of political donors – those who want access to politics to influence policy, those who just want to ‘starfuck’ and be seen in the company of powerful people, and then there are the genuine philanthropists. In my experience they are by far the largest group, but when scandals like this one break, they are the ones who are unfortunately caught in the backwash.
Let there be no mistake, the Cruddas resignation is a political scandal of the first degree. For the Tory Party treasurer to be caught on video offering access to the Prime Minister is something even the most accomplished Tory spin doctor will find difficult to explain their way out of. And nor should they try. A bit of humility is what is called for here, not bluster.
The words used by Peter Cruddas in the Sunday Times video indicate that the same kind of culture on fundraising operates in today’s Conservative Party that operated in New Labour when Lord Levy was chief fundraiser. I say that not to make a partisan political point, but as a statement of fact. We remember the transcripts of conversations between Lord Levy and potential Labour fundraisers, where he appeared to offer access and preferment. The same thing is happening here. You’d think they would learn, wouldn’t you?
Let’s not kid ourselves that this sort of thing hasn’t been going on for decades in one form or another. I remember nearly ten years ago when David Davis was sacked as Tory Party chairman by Iain Duncan Smith. Much of the reason was that he wouldn’t play ball over meeting potential donors who were ‘after something’. There were terrible rows between him and the party treasurers at the time and he paid the price with his job. I remember furious rows not that long ago when the Tories were in opposition when David Cameron instructed his Shadow Ministers to raise funds to pay for their research staff themselves. Many objected, but as far as I know only one refused. Why did they object? Because they felt that it smelt wrong. That they could be accused of offering access for funding. Whatever the facts of it were, it looked dodgy. Perception, as I say, is everything.
Possibly the most damaging allegation made in the Sunday Times article is this…
There was still one problem, however. The proposed donation was being paid from a Liechtenstein fund and belonged ultimately to Middle Eastern investors. It was a foreign donation. Cruddas was happy for the reporters to find a way around this and said he’d arrange a meeting with the party’s “compliance people” to check that it was legitimate. One option was to create a UK company to donate the money. He said: “Set up a company, employ some people to work here.” Later, though, the reporters’ lobbyist spoke to party officials and returned. As the reporters, posing as executives, were British, the money could be channelled through them. “[The company] would have to donate through an individual (perhaps a director of the company) who is registered on the UK electoral roll,” Southern wrote. She later claimed on the phone: “[The party] don’t pry as to where the money comes from, at all.”
This is Michael Brown territory and in my opinion is tantamount to encouraging someone to break the law. It would not surprise me at all if the Police didn’t look into this.
We can all point to examples in all parties and point out funding scandals. The LibDems and Michael Brown is the most infamous example, and they also have their Access to Clegg dinners, advertised in PR Week last April. The Labour Party is quite open about the fact that its policies are heavily influenced by the very trade unions which provide 90% of their funding. And just how much did the Labour Party get from Assem Allam to persuade Ed Miliband to back out of attending an NHS rally (pretending he was ill) in order to be driven in Allam’s Rolls Royce to attend a football match at the Allam owned KC Stadium in Hull? But all this is rather beside the point. We all know party funding stinks in this country but no one seems to be doing an awful lot about it.
As Andrew Pierce has just said on LBC, let’s not kid ourselves. There are dozens of members of the House of Lords who are there purely because of the amount of money that they have donated to political parties. Yes, they cite their business careers and contribution to charitable causes as the real reason for their elevation to the peerage, but we all know the truth. They come from all parties. It stinks, and always has done, and while there are fewer of them now than there used to be, there are still too many.
So let’s look to the future. What should happen now? Out of threats come opportunities for those farsighted enough to grasp them. Cameron did that in spades over MP expenses. He grasped the initiative and was the party leader who was seen by the public to ‘do something’. This scandal offers the same opportunity to Nick Clegg. Or at least it would do were he not heading for foreign climes for a summit on something or other in the Far East. The LibDems have a policy of introducing maximum political donations of £10,000. The Tories have a similar policy – but want to set the limit at £50,000. Labour agree on the £50,000 limit but are insistent that it must not apply to trade unions. What a surprise. And it is for that reason that cross party talks failed in 2009.
If Clegg or Cameron wish to take the high ground on this issue, all they have to do is unilaterally apply their own propose policy to their own parties. Now. They don’t need legislation to do so. They can just do it.
And they should. Now. And the electorate will then draw their own conclusions if Ed Miliband doesn’t follow suit.
David Cameron predicted this scandal. It is natural to therefore ask why, therefore, has he done nothing to prevent it occurring? It simply won’t wash to say that the appointment of Tory Party Treasurer was ‘nothing to do with me, guv’. Even if it were true, no one would believe it. And if it wasn’t anything to do with the Party leader, who ‘headhunted’ Mr Cruddas and who set out the parameters of what he was supposed to do? It can only have been Andrew Feldman or Sayeeda Warsi, I would have thought. It seems most likely to have been Feldman.
We now need transparency. After all, as someone once said, transparency is the best form of disinfectant, is it not? We need to know what marching orders Peter Cruddas was given and by whom. We need to know which major donors have met senior Ministers for dinner, or otherwise, and when, and what proposals have indeed been passed on to Downing Street from major donors by Conservative Central Office.
If we don’t get those details people will assume the worst.
Oh, and a fullsome apology from the Prime Minister wouldn’t go amiss, either.