Will supper at Number Ten cost the Conservatives dear?

Palace of Westminster

Political corruption is in the news again this week following revelations in a Sunday newspaper that Conservative Party co-Treasure Peter Cruddas promised donors access to Government policy makers.

The Conservative Party has been quick to dissociate itself from Mr Cruddas’ claims, recorded by an undercover journalist.

Mr Cruddas has since resigned and the Conservative Party has launched an internal inquiry into the affair, but the controversy continues, with Labour calling for an independent inquiry and Prime Minister David Cameron under pressure from the media to reveal the names of any donors invited to private dinners at Downing Street.

Here, Tim Bale, Professor of Politics in the School of Law, Politics and Sociology at the University of Sussex, gives his assessment of the latest “sleaze” crisis in British politics.

Is this newspaper revelation a serious issue for the government?

There are two reasons why this case seems to go beyond a common-or-garden party funding scandal.  The first is the promise by the former Tory Treasurer Peter Cruddas that a donation would allow the company making it access to the governmental policy making-process.  The second is his implication that it might be possible to get around legislation than bans donations to UK political parties from overseas.

Is there anything particularly tricky for the Conservatives in this right now?

One additional headache for David Cameron is that the promise of cash for access risks confirming the Tories as the rich man’s Party. It’s a problem compounded by last week’s budget, which saw a reduction in the top rate of tax and changes in corporation tax.  Another is the possibility that, by seeking to resist full disclosure on who he’s had round to Number Ten, Cameron will simply reinforce the suspicion that he and his party have something to hide.

Is there any evidence that giving money to a political party buys an individual or a company influence?

Hard evidence is almost impossible to come by.  Even if an individual decision goes in someone’s favour, no-one can ever be sure that it might not have done so anyway.  True, the implication is always there – why else would someone pay something for nothing, after all?  But proof is much harder to come by.  In fact, of course, there are lots of other reasons for people and companies to give money.  For one thing, it allows you to hobnob with top politicians in the hope that some of their supposed importance will rub off on you, impressing your friends and clients.  For another, you might simply believe that the party in question has the best programme and that helping it beat its competitors will ensure that they don’t get the chance to run the country in a way that you think will be damaging, not just for you and your company but for people in general.

Where will things go from here?

This story seems to have legs. The Conservatives will almost certainly try to shift the focus from themselves to party funding in general, on which they will be able to argue that the other parties have suffered their own share of scandals in the past and have also been rather less than co-operative in seeking a cross-party solution to the problem. 

Labour will continue to demand an independent inquiry, and in this they may well be backed by the media. Journalists will be pressing hard for Cameron to publish exactly who he has and hasn’t met with since becoming Prime Minister. 

They will also be looking around for concrete examples of companies and individuals who might have given money to the Tories recently and checking to see if there is any way they may have derived particular benefit from recent legislation. 

Given the allegation that the recently-passed Health and Social Care Act is going to throw up a host of opportunities for private healthcare providers and management companies, the health and social care sector is an obvious place to start looking. 

Likewise, companies who stand to gain a private sector role in helping people back to work will also come under scrutiny.  Finally, things could get really tricky if the police are called in to look for evidence that the laws banning foreign donations have been by-passed.

What about the long term: is a change to the way politics is funded in the UK on the cards?

It would be a brave man who predicted – and an even braver politician who called for – a move to the kind of substantial state funding that characterises most democracies, particularly in Europe.  British voters show no enthusiasm for shelling out taxpayers’ money on political parties – possibly quite rightly so, since the latest research suggests both that parties will only spend more money when it’s made available and that state funding does little to diminish their appetite for cash from more dubious sources if they think they can get away with it.

Notes for Editors

Professor Tim Bale is author of The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron.  He occasionally tweets @ProfTimBale

University of Sussex Press office contacts: Maggie Clune and Jacqui Bealing. Tel: 01273 678 888. Email: press@sussex.ac.uk

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Last updated: Monday, 26 March 2012