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Is the UK’s democracy for sale? 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.
In addition to the so-called board, made up of some of the most generous Conservative party benefactors, the Financial Times has detailed that donors from the property sector have poured close to £18m into Tory coffers since Johnson became prime minister in 2019. Housebuilders 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 per cent of party income enjoyed under Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May.
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, Britain has a housing crisis and a longstanding shortage of supply partly underpins it. Johnson’s planned liberalisation, however, 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 is another dilemma posed by outsize donations from a single sector: even if Johnson truly believes in the policy, his motives will be questioned. The party insists donations have no bearing on policy.
The party’s improved finances have much to do with its co-chairman, Ben Elliot. The Duchess of Cornwall’s nephew parlayed society contacts into Quintessentially, the concierge service. Charging money to cater to the rich’s whims is fine for a company. Allowing wealth to facilitate access sits less comfortably at the heart of government.
Even without Elliot, it is not surprising that donors have extended their largesse to this government: the whiff of chumocracy risks becoming overpowering, whether it is pandemic-related contracts for close contacts, a former prime minister lobbying on behalf of a company now the subject of global investigations, or a housing minister who approved a scheme after sitting next to a developer at dinner before having to hastily reverse his decision. Donors might be forgiven for thinking they were pushing at an already open door.
Donors deny they pay for influence. But if an impression of such leverage were to be perceived, this would not be a new, nor solely Tory, blight. Consider the cash-for-peerage scandal under Tony Blair. But Johnson — 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 — seems to have a particular donor problem, and with it questions over to whom he might owe a debt.
There is no suggestion that party donors or the Advisory Board have broken any rules. But that is indicative of a system that is itself broken. At the very least there needs to be transparency around whether and on what terms the deepest pockets may gain access to the corridors of power.