Richard North, 02/08/2021  

At last, The Daily Telegraph has woken up to the "access capitalism" story. Oddly enough, it is breaking away from the royal "soap opera" line pursued by the Sunday Times, with a report headed: "Prince Charles believes he is 'collateral damage' in Tory 'cash for access' scandal".

This is all about a row engulfing the Conservative Party, with Mohamed Amersi the main protagonist – something previously documented by the Financial Times. This, the paper asserts, has nothing to do with the Prince of Wales.

Helpfully, therefore, the paper pulls the focus back onto the political element with a separate report headed: "'Mr Access All Areas' has transformed Tory party coffers but left series of scandals in his wake", with the sub-heading: "Under Ben Elliot's stewardship the potential for super-rich donors to influence the prime minister appears greater than ever".

This is the nub of the story which the FT is happy to develop with its own report headlined: "The Conservatives and the whiff of chumocracy". Referring to the Tories' "Advisory Board", it then asserts: "A shadowy club of elite political donors increases perceptions of cronyism".

It's the opening paragraph that really says it all, underlining why this story is actually quite important. "Is the UK's democracy for sale?", the paper asks rhetorically – making the assumption that we have a democracy, which is very far from the case. But the paragraph then continues:
A select coterie of financiers and grandees have made substantial donations, some to the tune of £250,000, and gained membership of an invite-only club known as the Advisory Board that has the ear of the prime minister, Boris Johnson, and the chancellor, Rishi Sunak. What is discussed is not minuted. Who is a member is not clear. The very existence of the board is not documented, which is precisely the issue: a shadowy world of privileged access exists. That is a problem for good governance and good government, increasing perceptions of cronyism and sleaze.
As if this was not bad enough, the FT reminds us that donors from the property sector have poured close to £18m into Tory coffers since Johnson became prime minister in 2019.

Housebuilders, the paper says, have long enjoyed strong connections to the party, where an article of faith holds that voters are more likely to vote Tory if they are homeowners. But the proportion of money backing the party from the property sector has soared in recent years to a quarter of all donations, from the previous high of 12 percent of party income enjoyed under Johnson's predecessor, Theresa May.

If it wasn't already obvious, the paper says that "alarm bells then must sound as Johnson is trying to push through a contentious overhaul of planning rules that aims to build 300,000 houses a year; a policy from which the party's biggest backers will benefit.

Undoubtedly, it acknowledges, "Britain has a housing crisis and a longstanding shortage of supply partly underpins it". But Johnson's planned "liberalisation" risks alienating other supporters of the party from greenbelt areas, as well as coming into tension with the government's aim of improving biodiversity.

This, understandably, is another dilemma posed by outsize donations from a single sector. In the unlikely event that Johnson truly believes in the policy – given that he displays no real commitment to any policy line - his motives will be questioned.

Needless to say, after the breakout of the "Advisory Board" story, the Tories insist that donations have no bearing on policy. But this rather begs the question as to why this galaxy of donors is so keen to throw money at the Conservative Party, especially when the Covid PPE debacle clearly indicates that donations to the Party represent an extremely good investment.

Certainly, the FT is unsurprised that donors have extended their largesse to this government, noting that the whiff of "chumocracy" risks becoming overpowering.

Here, the list of examples is becoming persuasive: the pandemic-related contracts for close contacts; a former prime minister lobbying on behalf of a company now the subject of global investigations; and a housing minister who approved a scheme after sitting next to a developer at dinner before having to hastily reverse his decision. Donors, says the FT, might be forgiven for thinking they were pushing at an already open door.

It doesn't matter, therefore, that donors deny they pay for influence – they would say that anyway. What matters is the perception. And if an impression of such leverage were to be perceived, this would not be a new, nor solely Tory, blight. We are thus reminded of the cash-for-peerage scandal under Tony Blair.

Johnson, though, seems to be in a different league. This is a man whose personal finances are chaotic and who initially struggled to explain how he funded a Caribbean holiday and the decoration of his Downing Street flat. He now seems to have a particular donor problem, and with it questions over to whom he might owe a debt.

Taking care to avoid any legal complications, the FT states that there is no suggestion that party donors or the Advisory Board have broken any rules. Mind you, there is no particular reason no to believe that rules haven't been "bent", if the mood takes you.

But the secrecy surrounding the arrangement, the FT thinks, "is indicative of a system that is itself broken". At the very least, the paper says, "there needs to be transparency around whether and on what terms the deepest pockets may gain access to the corridors of power".

That may be the FT view, and the Labour Party, according to the Guardian, is doing its best to make it happen, calling for the publication of the names of ministers who secretly met Advisory Board donors.

Even if they succeed, though, I don't suppose anything would convince Johnson's increasing number of detractors that everything is above board – especially when deeds mean so much more that honeyed words of denial.

Ironically, it is the Telegraph which is drawing attention to this, lamenting that, "The Government has stopped listening to traditional Tories". Two years ago, this paper complains, Johnson promised a government for the people, one that focused on delivering what public opinion wanted rather than implementing the technocratic musings of an elite of economists, lawyers, Westminster insiders and assorted apparatchiks.

Failing completely to join the dots, it neglects to point out that the surest way of getting the government's attention is to come armed with a cheque of £250,000 – or, preferably, more. But experience would now suggest that this is the only way of getting the government's attention. Normal "democratic" processes no longer apply.

It's come to such a state that both the Telegraph and the Mirror are singing from the same hymn sheet. While the former is saying that, if the government does not listen to voters now, it will hear from them later, at the ballot box, the latter writes in much the same vein.

Whether it's VIP lanes for Tories receiving Covid contracts or entitled Johnson behaving as if virus restrictions shouldn't apply to him and his privileged circle, a "them-and-us divide" is turning the political weather against the Tories, the paper says.

It warns that the Prime Minister may one day soon discover that mud sticks – with pay-back time looming as voters grow increasingly angry that he runs the country as if he's above the rules.

That notwithstanding, it will be a long time before the voters are convinced – if ever – that Labour is capable of forming a credible government. But the stench of Tory sleaze is nothing if not pervasive. It will take more than a bit of "transparency" to clear it away.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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