Tonight, the Conservative Party’s Black and White Ball will take place. Theresa May reportedly considered scrapping it entirely, to escape the traditional PR cringefest in which multi-millionaires run the gauntlet of television reporters asking how much influence they hope to buy, followed by the ensuing inevitable leaks of what was bought at action and for how much. ConservativeHome’s editor, a guest of a party donor, once found the event “a concoction of monstrous vulgarity…[which] might almost have been designed to portray that Conservatives as, if not precisely the Nasty Party, then at least the out-of-touch one.”
The Prime Minister’s instinct to abandon the bash was defeated by the argument that her party needs the money it brings in, so the price in media pain is to be paid once again. This decision points to an important question: how healthy are Conservative Party finances under the new leadership?
In politics, everybody likes to talk about personalities and process, some people like to talk about policy and practice, but very few like to talk about the grubby question of money – unless, that is, they’re discussing quite how grubby their opponents’ money happens to be. Nonetheless, cash matters. Without any money, running a political party would swiftly become impossible, a fact UKIP might come to discover when their European Parliament funding disappears along with their MEPs in 2019.
Despite the taboo, some inside the Conservative machine have raised concerns and questions about the progress of Tory fundraising in recent months. One even suggests the Party is currently undershooting its donation targets by ten per cent.
It is certainly the case that donations dipped sharply after the EU referendum, falling from £4,379,695.05 in Quarter Two of 2016 to £2,919,316.93 in Quarter Three, the most recent quarter published by the Electoral Commission. That’s a disappointing figure – more so if you discount the £57,529.17 which came from public funds.
Such a fall isn’t completely unheard of. Quarter Three of 2011, the same point in the previous electoral cycle, saw donations fall to £2,771,903.61. That figure slightly flatters the current situation, though, in two ways. Take into account inflation, and the low point of 2011 is over £3.1 million in today’s money. Check the breakdown of donors, and you further find that the amount of public funding received back then was less than half the current amount. Whichever way you look at it, July-September of last year was a bad time for Conservative Party finances.
Party officials deny that this is part of a wider or sustained problem, claiming that the Electoral Commission return for Quarter Four of 2016 will show donations higher than the comparable period in 2011. If so, we will still have to wait for the official release to see whether that rebound has kept pace with inflation or not.
There are other clues to possible issues, though. The decision to keep the Ball going despite high level concerns about its impact on the Conservative brand strongly suggests that the Party is not flush enough to live without its revenue. Offering 100 Tory activists discounted tickets was presented as an effort to improve appearances, though at least one insider questions whether it might not in fact reflect an expected lack of interest among high value donors. Both full price and discount tickets went on sale at the same time, but if there were already fundraising difficulties then it would have been possible to foresee some shortfall before sales began and act accordingly.
If Party fundraisers are having a hard time of it, there are a number of possible reasons.
Jeremy Corbyn’s views terrify Conservative donors, but his disastrous poll ratings reassure them that their money isn’t required in order to defeat him. Miliband lost in the end, but the polls regularly presented him as a plausible winner and suggested the Conservatives had a real fight on their hands to keep him out of power.
The departure of David Cameron could well have cost the party the support of some of his fans, and the attendant loss of Lord Feldman, the fundraising-focused former Party Chairman, exacerbated that loss. Feldman was a very effective chairman financially – he tapped up his extensive network of City contacts for a series of six-figure donations, and got the Conservative Party out of debt for the first time since 1995. His strong relationship with a select group of very large donors was worth his weight in gold.
But what of those donors who might be expected to return now that Cameron is gone and the EU question is settled? Over the years, more than a few fell out of love with the former Prime Minister and/or withdrew their support due to their Euroscepticism. They might yet be tempted back by May’s approach and her dedicated pursuit of Brexit, but many also donated heavily to the Leave effort during the referendum itself and could be forgiven for suffering a bit of donor fatigue.
Quite how to overcome these factors is a question which has no doubt been thrashed out many times already in CCHQ’s fundraising team. Evidently the continuation of the Black and White Ball is one part of that, even in its reformed format. Those charged with sweating the Party’s contacts will be heartened to know that Lord Feldman will be in attendance this evening despite his departure from office, so perhaps some of his relationships might be capitalised upon once more.
I’m told that the new management’s plan is to widen the donor base, particularly by expanding to raise more from a greater number of mid- to high-value donors in the regions. There’s a perception that while Feldman’s fundraising campaign bore remarkable fruit, it also left the Conservative Party dependent on a relatively small number of very large donors in the City of London, leaving as-yet untapped opportunities in other industries and other parts of the country.
To identify and capitalise on those leads, all members of the Cabinet have been told to allocate a certain number of days each year to host fundraising dinners and other events around the country. The Party Chairman himself led the way by speaking at just such an event last Friday in Northumberland. If the strategy pays off, the Black and White Ball might no longer be a necessary evil.