David Cameron was in a foul mood on Monday night. ‘Cash for Cameron’, the scandal about a Tory treasurer trying to lure donors with the prospect of dinner in the Camerons’ Downing Street flat if they coughed up £250,000, is precisely the kind of story that gets under his skin. He knows that it matters, but hates the fact that it does. Part of him thinks that it is all beneath his prime-ministerial dignity.
It also irritates him that he is receiving little credit for being more transparent than any of his predecessors. He tetchily said to colleagues that evening that ‘if I am anymore transparent, I’ll be telling the press when I see my own family’. But, deep down, he realises the potency of any story about the Tories and a moneyed elite.
The Tories’ Achilles’ heel is that, according to a recent poll, two thirds of voters believe that they are the party of the rich. In recent decades, the Tories have tried to get around this problem by choosing leaders with humble origins: Edward Heath was the son of a maid, Margaret Thatcher a grocer’s daughter, John Major’s dad a music-hall performer. William Hague’s parents ran a small soft drinks business and Michael Howard’s father was a Romanian immigrant. For 40 years, the only exception to this rule was Iain Duncan Smith, from a military family.
But Cameron, educated at Eton and Oxford, marks a return to the party being headed by a scion of privilege. He has always been sensitive on this point. Indeed, his unease about cutting the top rate of tax in the Budget can be traced back to his fear that it would let the class genie out of the bottle. Now, this has been followed by a story that is almost perfectly designed to reinforce the impression that the Tories are a party of and for the rich.
Ironically, the now departed treasurer Peter Cruddas was offered the job partly because he was not a public school smoothie. Cruddas, who left his comprehensive school at 15 before making a fortune in the City, made much play of how he could reach the people that other Tory fund-raisers could not. He assured the leadership that he could bring back the northern donors.
It was, perhaps, because he was straining to impress that Cruddas crossed the line in trying to lure two undercover journalists to pay into party funds. But he did hit upon a truth about the Cameron circle: they mix the professional and the social. There is nothing shocking about that. Many of us do. It does, though, mean that when things go wrong there are no neat firebreaks in place.
The Prime Minister has already suffered for his habit of mixing business and pleasure. His links to News International have done him much damage because they went beyond formal dinners to include more memorable indiscretions, such as riding Rebekah Brooks’s horse. He will get out of his Cruddas scrape with no permanent damage done. It is no Ecclestone affair. But Downing Street should learn two lessons: Cameron needs more personal loyalists, and the Conservatives need a more formidable chairman.
Walking around parliament on Monday afternoon, I bumped into two junior ministers who gleefully pointed out how few people were defending the Prime Minister on the airwaves. They both suggested that this was a consequence of how little attention Cameron has paid to his colleagues since becoming leader in 2005.
The accusation is only half fair. Cameron has put much more effort into his relationships with his MPs after the shock of 81 of them defying his three-line whip on the EU referendum motion last October. Tellingly, his preferred method of outreach has been to cook dinner for groups of them in the Downing Street flat. But he still lacks the nucleus of loyalist MPs that any prime minister needs.
It often seems that Michael Fallon, the party’s deputy chairman, is the only MP prepared to bat for Cameron when the bowling is quick and there’s grass on the wicket. In contrast, when George Osborne and Michael Gove have had their moments of difficulty, there has been no shortage of MPs prepared to go out to the middle. The last few days have also been an illustration of why Cameron needs a new party chairman. The role is split between Baroness Warsi and Andrew Feldman, Cameron’s university friend and tennis partner. Unfortunately, neither is suited to dealing with the media in full cry. This is a problem. For it is part of the party chairman’s job to protect the Prime Minister from the media pack.
The Cruddas affair has reminded us of the dangers involved in the Tories’ funding model, but the tanker strike will turn the spotlight on Labour’s problems. Unite, one of its major backers, has voted for its drivers to go out, threatening travel chaos in time for Easter. This will leave Ed Miliband facing awkward questions about whether he agrees with this strike by a union whose votes helped make him Labour leader.
Given that both major parties have these problems, one would have thought that a deal on party funding would be possible. But it is not. The Tories will continue to insist that any cap must cover union contributions to Labour as well as individual donations. Labour will not — and cannot —accept this. It will stick to the line that union money represents a collection of individual donations, not one big one. The Liberal Democrats, for their part, are primarily interested in more state funding and limiting the financial advantages enjoyed by the main parties.
Depressingly, what seems to be off the table is any attempt to revive the mass membership party, funded by small donations. All parties talk about how difficult this would be. They point out that even Barack Obama is having trouble raising this type of money.
Cameron believes that the best that can be done is to widen the Tory donor base so that the party is no longer dependent on a few well-heeled individuals. The aim, I understand, is to ensure that it could accept a far lower cap on donations than the £50,000 that it is currently proposing.
The Tories are acutely aware that, if they are to persuade the Liberal Democrats to join them in imposing a limit on union donations to Labour, they will have to accept a low limit on individual donations in general. It’s proof, if it were needed, that these party funding wars are just the continuation of politics by other means.
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