There’s a difference between what a man does and how he does it. The way in which Ben Elliot chairs the Conservative Party – for of its two co-chairman, he’s the one in charge – helps to illustrate the point.
Elliot is accused of making the Tories more reliant on big donors. It certainly appears that more money has been raised, since Boris Johnson became leader, from fewer people.
But why would any Conservative funder seek deliberately to restrict the number of people giving money to the party? Especially with the threat, as the Tory leadership sees it, of a future Labour government capping big donations?
One of the reasons why it is impossible to know who gives what to political parties is that donations under £7500 don’t have to be declared. Johnson and Elliot know that the Left is coming for their money.
Which is why party members, as readers will know, are persistently blitzed, especially as elections approach, with e-mailed appeals for money, sent in the name of leading Conservative politicians.
It is said that these sums have been increasing in recent years, with over £1 million raised in the first half of 2020, though the party isn’t confirming or denying anything.
Our proprietor saved the Tories’ financial bacon when they were in opposition, and this conservative site believes that in doing so he performed a public service.
But a Tory Chairman that relied on a few donors, let alone one, would be taking leave of his senses. David Cameron’s equivalent of Elliott, Andrew Feldman, worked deliberately to broaden the donation base.
And if the Tories have become more dependent on property developers during recent years, as is claimed, is that because these have become more willing to give the party money, or others less so?
It may be that that obscure body of men, the Conservative Treasurers (and they do seem to consist entirely of men, at least as far we know) has become fixated on one industry as a funding source.
But the allegation that it has bought party policy doesn’t stand up. The Tories would have an interest in housebuilding even if the sector was declining as a source of contributions.
This is because without more homes and owners they will continue losing the votes of younger people. Which is why Greg Clark and Eric Pickles steered the National Planning Policy Framework through Parliament, well before the recent rise in donations from developers.
Some Conservative backbenchers did their best to halt those reforms, put their boot into the housing algorithm, and now are doing their best to beat up up the Government’s latest scheme to build more.
That’s a reminder that the anti-building lobby in the Tory party is at least as powerful as the building one. There’s a wider lesson in that battle of competing forces.
The clash of interests is integral to politics, which is why capital funds the Conservatives and the trade unions Labour. So one should take Amanda Milling’s protests that donors have no influence on policy with more than a pinch of salt.
But the difference that a few people might make to policy is balanced out by that of millions of others. Consider the planned rise in Corporation Tax, the effective re-nationalisation of the railways, and the shift in infrastruscture funding from south to north.
Plus net zero, industrial strategy, and the Conservative commitment to spend more, more, more on doctors, teachers and nurses. Much of this goes down well with, say, the CBI but badly with Tory donors, who tend to be blue in tooth and claw.
No wonder they recently gave Johnson a hard time. When push comes to shove, the voters of Chesham and Amersham speak louder than the members of this new Conservative “advisory board”.
So Elliot is doing nothing wrong in seeking money from big donors. No do accusations that he is opening the door to people with connections to Britain’s adversaries add up.
Indeed, the current palaver seems to have been kicked off by his refusal to admit a man with business links to Russia to the advisory board – a group of people who are reported each to give £250,000 to the Conservatives.
That we collectively don’t know much about this group says something not only about the obscurities of political funding, but about Elliot’s way of working. This takes us back to the difference between what someone does and how he does it.
Recent Tory treasurers have tended to operate below the radar: James Lupton, Andrew Fraser, Ehud Sheleg – and Michael Farmer, whose special interest in social justice and family policy is well known to readers of this site.
It can fairly be added that those who have ended up in the limelight, such as Peter Cruddas, didn’t seek the attention that they got. But a man who would like to be an MP, as Elliot says he does, must get used to having his name punted about.
It seems intrinsic to what he does, anyway. After all, part of the point of a concierge company like Quintessetially is that it connects people with people. Robert Jenrick’s rating in our Cabinet League Table has not yet recovered from his being connected to Richard Desmond.
As Andrew Gimson wrote in his profile of Elliot for this site, he would not have arranged the seating plan which seated the Housing Secretary next to Desmond at a party fundraising dinner.
But “because Elliot is in overall charge of CCHQ, he still incurs criticism when things go wrong”. “His insouciant manner suggests to those around him a refusal to contemplate the danger of scandal,” Andrew continued.
His piece contained a robust defence of the Tory Chairman from Zac Goldsmith, who has known Elliot “pretty much all my life”. He is “without doubt the most effective person I know in terms of getting things done,”he continued.
The Financial Times, which is driving the Elliot story, reports that the Conservative Chairman once “regularly played poker with Ben and Zac Goldsmith, wealthy environmentalists, at Crown London Aspinalls”.
The card games, the Aspinall name – the whiff of the Clermont Club. Are we wrong to look up from that poker table, and see the ghost of Lord Goldsmith’s father, Jimmy Goldsmith?
Goldsmith failed to win an EU referendum and a seat in the Commons. His son got the second and the latter’s friend, Johnson, helped to deliver the first.
Indeed, losers from globalisation, whose interests Goldsmith sought to defend in The Trap, were part of the coalition that swung the EU referendum for Leave. The imperious tycoon was the grandfather of the Red Wall.
Come to think of it, Goldsmith’s ghost is not confined to Crown London Aspinall’s, amidst an imaginary haze of glamorous women, lawsuits, missing peers, vendettas, and wild animals.
It is strolling triumphantly, punching the air as it goes, through Downing Street – passing, on its evening visitations, Carrie Johnson as she trudges back from her daily toil as commnications head of the Aspinall Foundation.
“How unpleasant to meet Mr Eliot,” the poet wrote in a verse lampooning himself. We are sure that meeting Mr Elliot is a more agreeable experience, and hold that raising money for a mainstream political party helps sustain liberal democracy.
All the same, it may not be sustainable for the party no longer to publish, as it did under David Cameron, details about the Leader’s Group, participants in which give the party £50,000. Let alone of a group whose members apparently pay five times as much.