Donor row piles pressure on Cameron

2012-03-26 10:01

London - Pressure was mounting on Monday on British Prime Minister David Cameron following the resignation of a Conservative treasurer who apparently offered access to the premier in return for party donations.

Peter Cruddas was secretly filmed by the Sunday Times offering reporters posing as wealthy donors’ private dinners with Cameron for £250 000.

On film, he suggested their views would be fed into a government policy committee.

In a statement, Cruddas said his comments were merely "bluster" and insisted there was "no question" of selling access to politicians, but offered his resignation from the job he had taken only a month ago.

Cameron, the Tory leader, condemned the remarks as "completely unacceptable", telling the BBC: "This is not the way that we raise money in the Conservative party, it shouldn't have happened.

"It's quite right that Peter Cruddas has resigned. I will make sure there is a proper party inquiry to make sure this can't happen again."

But Cameron's Downing Street office later admitted the premier and his wife Samantha had hosted "a small number" of dinners for Tory donors, and the leader now faces a grilling from opposition MPs in Monday's parliamentary session.

Senior opposition Labour lawmaker David Miliband - brother of Labour party leader Ed Miliband - said the revelations would be deeply embarrassing for the prime minister.

"The idea that policy is for sale is grotesque," he said.

Government policy

The Conservatives openly list the benefits of donating to the party on their website, offering wealthy backers the chance to join "The Leader's Group", which gives access to dinners and events with Cameron, for £50 000 a year.

But Cruddas appeared to go further, discussing different sized donations and describing £200 000 to £250 000 a year as "premier league", granting access to Cameron and his finance minister George Osborne.

He also appeared unconcerned by the fact that the undercover reporters claimed to be representing a fund in Liechtenstein that would have been ineligible to make donations under British law, the Sunday Times said.

"I deeply regret any impression of impropriety arising from my bluster in that conversation," Cruddas said in a statement released shortly after the story broke.

"Clearly there is no question of donors being able to influence policy or gain undue access to politicians," he said.

He insisted it was "categorically not the case" that he could offer access as a result of a donation or that Cameron would consider it, and said he had had no dealings with those senior party officials who decided policy.

"But in order to make that clear beyond doubt, I have regrettably decided to resign with immediate effect," Cruddas said.

A Conservative Party spokesperson said that "no donation was ever accepted or even formally considered by the Conservative party" as a result of the conversation, and insisted it always complied with the law.

"Donations to the Conservative party do not buy party or government policy. We will urgently investigate any evidence to the contrary," he added.

Major scandal

The issue of whether money can buy influence has long been a concern in Britain, where political parties rely on donations to fund their activities.

A major scandal erupted under former prime minister Tony Blair when his Labour party was accused of giving seats in the unelected House of Lords to wealthy backers in return for donations and secret loans.

Cameron himself warned before his Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government took office in May 2010 that lobbying was the "next big political scandal waiting to happen".

Christopher Kelly, who heads a watchdog which monitors ethics in public life, said the Cruddas row showed it was time for politicians to put aside their differences and reach agreement on reforming party funding.

"Events like [this] are inevitable as long as the main political parties are dependent for their existence on large donations from rich individuals or, in the case of the Labour party, a small number of trade unions," he said.

Danny Alexander, a senior Liberal Democrat minister, said all three main parties would be discussing reform in the coming weeks.