Elliot’s taste

21 Feb

Like many readers of this site, I’m a Conservative Party member.  Like a smaller number, I’m an Association patron.  Both require giving money.  Requests for more duly follow.

And with good reason. The Party leadership worked out some while ago, roughly during the period when Andrew Feldman was Chairman, that it is hazardous to rely on a few givers of million pound-plus sums. For the donors may decide that they no longer wish to give on that scale.  Or eventually be barred from doing so.

Since declarations under £7500 don’t have to be declared, it’s impossible to know what proportion of any political party’s funds these raise. Though I’ve been told that the amount of money raised by the Conservatives from such gifts have been increasing in recent years.

This humdrum flow of requests for money helps to put yesterday’s Sunday Times splash into perspective.  “Revealed: the wealthy donors with PM’s ear,” it said.  The details were new (in other words, the names of those who attend an “advisory board”).  Its essence was not (the board’s existence was revealed last summer).

The Sunday Times referred to “a leak of several thousand documents”, and presumably there will be more to come in due course.  The paper is not revealing its sources – quite rightly too if it doesn’t wish to – and speculation would lead down a blind ally.

At any rate, the story contains a quote from Mohammed Amerci, a member of this board during the pandemic, who has since fallen out with the Party and is highly critical of the project.  What are the facts?  The starting-point is the existence of forums that allow wealthy donors to meet party politicians.

Labour has the Rose Network Chair Circle, which has invited donors to meet Keir Starmer, details of which are available online. The cost of membership is £5,000 a head per annum.  The Conservatives have the Leader’s Group (£50,000) and the Treasurer’s Group (£25,000)Michael Gove addressed the former last year.

No difference in principle, then.  The advisory board is higher in price (it costs £250,000 a head) and may be different in practice.  It is alleged that members are asked for advice as well as money, but no documentary evidence for the claim was cited; nor is it clear that such requests, if made, are unique to advisory board members.

It was reported that advisory board members lobbied Ministers directly, but it would be surprising if no member of other forums has ever done so, regardless of party.  Certainly, there is nothing new about senior Ministers being asked to attend events to “sing for their supper”.

As I say, the Party’s drive for more small donations puts this push for more large ones in perspective, and three points follow – beside the obvious one that since Labour is in a glass house when it comes to donor clubs, it isn’t well placed to throw stones (and that’s before we get to the turbulent story of the party’s relationship with the unions).

First, the members of the advisory board are unlikely to feel that they’re getting what they want. As I’ve written before, “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”.

Indeed, if advisory board members are hoping for results, there’s scant evidence that they’re getting them.  The Sunday Times report specifically referred to property, construction and big tobacco.  The former is fighting a rearguard action against a Government ambition for a smokefree England by 2030.

As for construction, the irresistible force of the housing lobby is meeting the immovable object of voter resistance. Liberalising planning proposals met mass resistance from the Conservative backbenches – and that was before the Chesham and Amersham by-election.

If my first point is that donors don’t always get their way, my second is that there’s no reason why they shouldn’t – sometimes, even often.  Unfashionable though it may be to say so, the clash of interests in Parliament, and their peaceful resolution through debate, is integral to liberal democracy.

Those Tory forums are part of one of those interests, capital, making its view known to Conservative front benchers. The latter are Ministers because voters made them so, in the near-landslide of the 2019 general election. So far, so good for the advisory board.  But there is a sting in the tail.

Which is that those who give the Party £25 a year, the standard membership fee, have no less an interest in its future than those who give £250,000 a year, the advisory board fee.  This brings me to my third point, which may be less helpful to CCHQ than my first two.

Namely, that we know a bit about what party members think, at least if the ConservativeHome panel is anything to go by. Seven in ten believe that money raised by activists shouldn’t help fund the leader’s private costs (with specific reference to that Downing Street wallpaper). Half want more control of how the money that they raise is spent.

It follows that a big slice of members, if our panel is representative, ask as ConHome has sometimes done: whose party is it anyway?  If an advisory board is to raise six figure sums, should the party leader effectively control how these are spent? And might it not be wiser to declare membership, rather than have it leaked?

At any rate, the trend in recent years has been for the leader to appoint an MP to spearhead campaigning and a friend to raise money.  The latter in Boris Johnson’s case is Ben Elliot, who has got the advisory board up and running.  I suspect our panel’s take is that what it gets up to is fundamentally a matter of taste.

On which point, Elliot will be more aware than anyone else, or at least should be, that Labour has its sights trained on him.  As Andrew Gimson wrote in his profile of the Party Chairman for this site, Elliot would not have arranged the seating plan which seated Robert Jenrick next to Richard Desmond at a party fundraising dinner.

But “because Elliot is in overall charge of CCHQ, he still incurs criticism when things go wrong”, Andrew continued.  “His insouciant manner suggests to those around him a refusal to contemplate the danger of scandal.”  Elliot later apologised to the 1922 Committee Executive.

If taste fails, rules step in: that at any rate is the lesson of the John Major years.  And the more rules there are, the more regulators there are – the Committee on Standards in Public Life, the Electoral Commission, the Independent Adviser on Ministerial Interests, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards…

And the more regulators there are, the more power falls into the hands of those we don’t elect rather than those we do.  But if voters don’t like the people they elect to govern them, they don’t seem to care for those they don’t elect, either – at least, not if Brexit is anything to go by.

By the same token, they may not like how the Conservative Party is paid for, but they would like paying for it themselves even less.  And funding Starmer, too.  Not to mention Nicola Sturgeon.  But when private funding becomes tainted as illegitimate, state funding steps in.  Elliot is playing for higher stakes than he may appreciate.

Judith Barnes: Another fine standards mess – at the City of London Corporation

6 Dec

Judith Barnes was a co-opted member of the City of London Corporation’s Standards Committee until the Corporation abolished the Standards Committee earlier this year.

The government is not the only culprit when it comes to undermining standards in public life. The City of London Corporation paved the way, though without, unfortunately, the U-turn forced on the government by resistance in Parliament and the press. The sorry saga of the Corporation’s tussle over standards, detailed in a damning account by Lord Lisvane in his review of governance at the Corporation, may provide some useful pointers for Parliament in the fallout from the Owen Paterson affair.

The trouble started back in 2016 when, for the first time, a complaint about the conduct of a Member reached a hearing before the Corporation’s Standards Committee. The Committee ruled that he had breached the Corporation’s Code of Conduct. This caused consternation among the body of Members, who were particularly exercised by the iniquity of the Standards Committee in naming the Member in question in its annual report. It prompted a review by a QC who recommended a right of appeal (sound familiar?) to a committee of Members independent of the Standards Committee.

This did little to reconcile Members to the standards regime. When the same Member was found to have breached the Code of Conduct again, the new appeals committee dismissed his appeal. Members still refused to implement the proposed sanction (to suspend him from the new appeals committee, ironically).

By then, a head of steam was building to abolish the Standards Committee and outsource rulings on the conduct of Members. The Corporation turned to Lord Lisvane for a solution. Having concluded that Members were incapable of policing themselves, he recommended that the Corporation set up an independent panel to adjudicate on complaints about Members’ conduct. For legal reasons, determinations by the panel would need to be endorsed by the Corporation so, crucially, he said that any determination by the independent panel on a breach of the Code of Conduct, and recommended sanction, would need to be decided by Members without debate.

Predictably, Members, who had made great play of not wanting to be judged by their peers, then insisted on having some Members on the ‘independent’ panel when it considered appeals (to provide ‘internal context’ apparently). They threw out the need for a decision without debate which was Lord Lisvane’s attempt to put a stop to the Corporation’s repeated resistance to determinations on Members’ conduct. The upshot is that Members, who could not overturn determinations when they came from the Standards/Appeals Committees (only sanctions), are now at liberty to override any determination by the independent panel.

Events at the Corporation suggest improving the system can only do so much. Once there are appropriate safeguards in place, such as a right of appeal, an independent element, and the right procedures, elected members – at national or local level – need to recognise that verdicts delivered in accordance with the system will in the normal course merit support.

The rules governing conduct have to be right of course. The Committee on Standards in Public Life has recently decided to introduce a requirement for holders of public office to treat others with respect. Although at first glance this would appear uncontroversial, experience at the Corporation suggests it has its dangers. Along with the campaign to abolish the Standards Committee, there was a push to give Members a blanket dispensation for their term of office to speak and vote on local ward matters in which they had a financial interest, unless the matter in question affected the Member ‘uniquely or more than any of their constituents’.

One of the Members who applied for this dispensation owned his flat with his wife. In my capacity as a co-opted member of the Standards Committee, I pointed out by way of hypothetical example that, if he and his wife stood to profit from a planning application that benefitted no-one else in his ward, he would be able to vote for it.

He promptly complained that I was in breach of the Code of Conduct on the basis that I had shown a ‘lack of respect’, by slurring him and his wife as ‘hypothetical criminals’, and was ‘wrong’ (who knew being ‘wrong’ amounted to misconduct?). The second limb of this complaint was blown out of the water by a leading QC’s opinion which made it clear in no uncertain terms that such a dispensation would be unlawful. Nothing daunted, the Corporation, by some mental contortion that they have yet to explain, nevertheless concluded that my use of a hypothetical example to explain my objection to granting this unlawful dispensation could indeed constitute a ‘lack of respect’ and even ‘bring my office or authority into disrepute’.

The concept of ‘respect’ is all too open to abuse in this way. In the current climate it risks importing ‘cancel culture’ into political debate. That would undermine not only standards, but democracy itself.