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As Sleaze Engulfs Tories, Is This Beginning Of End? – OpEd

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No one should be surprised that, as was revealed in secret footage shot by the Sunday Times in an investigation into government sleaze, the Tories’ co-treasurer Peter Cruddasoffered access to the Prime Minister David Cameron and the Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, in exchange for donations of up to £250,000, with the thinly-veiled promise that it would be helpful to donors’ interests.

Cruddas, who has made an estimated £750 million fortune in financial speculation, and is the founder of the online trading company Currency Management Consultants, met with, and was filmed by Sunday Times reporters posing as potential donors, who, as the BBC described it, “said they were British expats working for a company called Zenith incorporated in Liechtenstein with wealthy Middle Eastern funders.”

Telling the reporters that £250,000 gave them “premier league” access, and that “things will open up for you” if they donated that amount of money, Cruddas also explained, as the Guardian put it, “Two hundred grand to 250 is premier league … what you would get is, when we talk about your donations the first thing we want to do is get you at the Cameron/Osborne dinners. You do really pick up a lot of information and when you see the prime minister, you’re seeing David Cameron, not the prime minister. But within that room everything is confidential — you can ask him practically any question you want. If you’re unhappy about something, we will listen to you and put it into the policy committee at No 10 — we feed all feedback to the policy committee.”

He also said that “some donors had dined, with Samantha Cameron present, in the PM’s flat in Downing Street,” adding, “It’ll be awesome for your business. You’ll be … well pleased. Because your guests will be photographed with David Cameron. We do that, you know.”

Embarrassingly, one area of business that the reporters said they were interested in, as part of their cover story, was “buying government assets such as the Royal Mail — a subject Mr. Cruddas suggested they could raise directly with Mr. Cameron as premier league donors.” As the Daily Mail explained, he also “said there was no point in ‘scratching around’ with donations of £10,000,” and, as the Guardian also explained, Peter Cruddas also crossed a legal line when it came to negotiating the purported donation: “The Sunday Times claims the offer was made even though Cruddas knew the money would come from a fund in Liechtenstein that was not eligible to make donations under electoral law. Options said to have been discussed included creating a British subsidiary or using UK employees as conduits.”

A BBC report, including some of the secretly filmed footage of Peter Cruddas, is below:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=bcTZjqn8MwM

Cruddas almost immediately resigned, stating, “Clearly there is no question of donors being able to influence policy or gain undue access to politicians. Specifically, it was categorically not the case that I could offer, or that David Cameron would consider, any access as a result of a donation. Similarly, I have never knowingly even met anyone from the No 10 policy unit. But in order to make that clear beyond doubt, I have regrettably decided to resign with immediate effect.”

That sounded exactly like a script designed to cynically counter the specific reality not only of what had just happened, but of what had been filmed and could not therefore be brushed off easily at all– and the damage limitation also involved David Cameron, who said, “What happened was completely unacceptable. This is not the way that we raise money in the Conservative party, it shouldn’t have happened. It’s quite right that Peter Cruddas resigned. I’ll make sure there is a proper party inquiry to make sure this can’t happen again.”

Nevertheless, this is a huge embarrassment — and, I fervently hope, will be the moment that sleaze has become inextricably associated with David Cameron’s government, as I think it reflects a profound truth about Cameron’s way of operating — that, essentially, his only model of government is one in which, as he and his ministers carve up what is left of the state, they strike up relationships with the private companies and corporations who take over what was previously run by government — or strengthen already existing relationships.

This recently came home to me in an alarming sense, during the much-contested passage of Andrew Lansley’s NHS “reform” bill, when, as critics noted, a shocking number of MPs and peers are involved in companies that will benefit from the reforms. For MPs, these financial interests have to be declared in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, but logically a financial interest in a company ought to exclude an MP from taking part in any votes involving legislation relating to that company’s business — although that, of course, doesn’t happen.

It is this corruption at the heart of the political process that, to my mind, ought to be the focus of anger right now, and not, as some sources have been suggesting instead, the wider issue of party funding. That is indeed worth investigating, but it fails to tackle the bigger problem of MPs being bought.

The Labour party is not immune to this racket either, of course (and neither are the Liberal Democrats and regional parties, as it is a problem that plagues the entire political system). However, it was understandable that Ed Miliband, responding to the Tories’ announcement of an internal inquiry, called for “a full independent investigation” instead, “to reassure the British public,” and to cover “what happened, who knew what happened and what contributions were made.”

Michael Dugher, the shadow minister without portfolio, also sent a letter to David Cameron, in which he “demanded that the prime minister disclose which Tory donors had visited Downing Street, Chequers or Dorneywood since May 2010 and what policy representations they had made, particularly on the top rate of income tax, which was cut in Wednesday’s budget,” as the Guardian also explained.

Meanwhile, Lord Fink, a Tory peer and a hedge fund millionaire, “is to replace Cruddas as the party’s principal treasurer.” He held the role until just a few weeks ago, when Cruddas took it over, but as he takes over the role again I cannot be the only person wondering what kinds of people a hedge fund millionaire brings to the table, and what he too offers to donors.

As the Guardian noted, the disclosures about Peter Cruddas “appear to contradict previous claims by the Conservatives that their high-value donor groups, such as the ‘leader’s group,’ are for genuine supporters who do not seek to influence policy in return for their cash,” and that, of course, now seems to be a totally risible claim.

Today, the Guardian listed all the different donor groups operated by the Conservative party, and on the BBC Sir Christopher Kelly, the chairman of the committee on standards in public life, criticised not only the Tories, but also indicated how funding-for-access was a problem that afflicted the entire political system. “The truth,” he said, “is that, although all this controversy currently is about the Conservative party, in one form or another all the parties run donors clubs where quite publicly they’re offering access in return for large donations, and that must be wrong.” Perhaps what he should have said is that whichever party is in power is obviously the most easily bribed.

As the Guardian also noted yesterday, Cruddas’ actions also “raise questions” about the role of David Cameron, who, before taking office, spoke about “secret corporate lobbying,” and described it as the “next big scandal waiting to happen.”

Addressing the House of Commons today, David Cameron did not explain how that squares with the Sunday Times‘ claim that “the meetings, at which Cruddas claimed ‘premier league’ donors could lobby the prime minister directly,” were not “declared to the public,” although he denied that any wrongdoing had taken place, and delivered a speech refuting Cruddas’s claims, and promising to reveal details of who has been entertained at dinners at Downing Street — none of which, he said, were fundraising dinners.

Nevertheless, it is not clear that Cameron’s ability to brush off scandal — as he has been doing to date despite his proximity to Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks in the News International phone-hacking scandal — remains intact. In the Daily Telegraph, for example, Iain Martin wrote:

In recent weeks, I have heard mutterings that Downing Street has been operating a recklessly ill-judged open-door policy. Earlier this month, someone whose work brings him into regular contact with Number 10 told me that he was worried: “If you’ve got enough cash and you want to get through the front door to talk about planning or whatever bothers you, then you can get in.” The cumulative impression is toxic for the Tories, particularly after a budget in which the Chancellor announced the removal of the 50p tax band.

In addition, the Sun also weighed in with a critical editorial:

The MPs expenses scandal proved politicians cannot be trusted to be honest and open about money. So the revelation that Tory treasurer Peter Cruddas offered rich potential donors access to David Cameron will only confirm the public’s belief that Westminster is awash with charlatans and shysters. This is not some paltry wrangle over party funding. Allowing wealthy individuals or groups to lobby our leading politicians by waving a chequebook undermines democracy.

The Sun added:

Millions of voters will now be wondering whether Chancellor George Osborne decided to scrap the top 50p tax rate after a few cosy lunches with millionaire backers.

The Guardian found the Sun‘s editorial amusing, and for obvious reasons given the extent to which News International was such a leading example of how “waving a chequebook undermines democracy.” However, the Sun‘s stance, on top of the Sunday Times investigation that first exposed Cruddas, indicates to me that News International is turning away from Cameron and the Tories, and with criticism in the Telegraph, and front-page criticism of the budget in the Daily Mail last week, David Cameron and George Osborne and the rest of the arrogant, state-wrecking bullies of the Conservative party — all intimately involved with chequebook-waving private companies — are starting to look rather friendless.

And that cheers me up no end.

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Andy Worthington

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to his RSS feed (he can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see his definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in January 2010, and, if you appreciate his work, feel free to make a donation.

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