Cash for access sting puts Tories under pressure

 

BRITISH PRIME minister David Cameron is resisting demands for an independent inquiry after a key Conservative Party fundraiser was exposed seeking a £250,000 (€299,000) donation to party funds in return for privileged access to No 10 Downing Street.

The outing of Peter Cruddas by the Sunday Times provoked consternation within the Conservatives, following a bad week when chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, earned the ire of pensioners by cutting their tax-free allowances.

Mr Cruddas, who resigned yesterday, was filmed urging undercover reporters to donate between £100,000 and £250,000 to the Conservatives, saying the higher figure would “put them at the top of the Premier League” and would have an “astounding” impact on their business.

Mr Cruddas will be replaced by hedge fund millionaire Lord Fink.

Most worryingly, Mr Cruddas claimed that such donations would allow them to “feed” their concerns on policy issues to No 10 Downing Street, along with earning a place at dinner with Mr Cameron and his wife, Samantha, in their Downing Street flat.

“What happened is 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 has resigned,” declared Mr Cameron, in a bid to head off outside inspection.

However, Labour leader Ed Miliband said the Conservatives had been caught “seeking cash in exchange for access” to Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne and influence over policy-making, adding: “These allegations can’t be swept under the carpet.”

Demanding an independent investigation, Mr Miliband said the Conservative Party could not hold an internal inquiry “into itself”, since it must be shown if any influence was won by previous donors over the prime minister’s actions.

Labour now wants to see sight of all meetings held between senior Conservatives and donors; any evidence that any of them were brought to grace-and-favour homes such as Chequers could be politically toxic.

The Conservatives’ protestations of innocence about Mr Cruddas are weakened by the fact that the party openly advertises membership of its Leader’s Club to potential donors, offering dinners and drinks with senior politicians in return for donations.

The prime minister accepted that big donors would get invitations to parties where they were “going to be able to meet members of parliament and ministers and possibly the prime minister at functions – that’s part of the interaction. But what you won’t get is any particular favours as a result.”

Downing Street insisted last night it had been “immediately clear” once they were told of the allegations against Mr Cruddas at 3pm on Saturday that he would have to quit, although the newspaper disputed that version of events.

Senior figures, such as Conservative treasury committee chairman Sir Michael Fallon, implied Mr Cruddas was a fundraising neophyte who had become “carried away with his own bluster” when left on his first solo fundraising mission.

The Liberal Democrats, who have long wanted State-funded political parties and a ban on private donations, said the Cruddas episode made the case for reform “even stronger”.

However, the Tories and Labour are miles apart on the issue. The Conservatives do not want to lose their access to raise money in the City, while Labour refuses to accept that funding from trades unions could be threatened.

Sir Christopher Kelly, chairman of the committee for standards in public life, recommended reforms last October that were ignored. Yesterday, he said no one should be able to donate more than £10,000 a year to a political party.