Conservative party funding: As a Tory donor, I can tell you the system is undemocratic 'access capitalism' for privileged few – Mohamed Amersi

The Conservatives are the oldest political party in the world and should be a shining beacon for other democracies, but it no longer adheres to democratic principles.

Both candidates in the leadership contest must commit to building a better, more ethical party which will benefit the country. Two key elements are funding and wider governance.

As a long-standing Conservative party donor, I am both a beneficiary and a victim of the system. I never became a donor to gain unbridled access, but quickly learnt that the Conservative Campaign Headquarters’ machinery works in concentric circles.

I saw first-hand the duplicity and desire for power of both the leadership and other donors and quickly learnt that if you are not in the inner circle, you can be treated very poorly. Money talks and wealth whispers.

The current system of funding the party has long been in place, but has become exponentially worse since the arrival of party co-chairman Ben Elliot, fittingly known as "Mr Access All Areas” by colleagues.

The “access capitalism” approach cannot continue, it is not sustainable for our democracy. It is not fair, or healthy, for a privileged few, including myself, to have unrivalled access to decision-makers.

Our Prime Minister has resigned, but Ben Elliot remains in position. Donors are asking why? Is it to anoint the new leader, or to facilitate a return on investment to donors and fundraisers? Will money continue to be the single greatest requirement for survival?

It is important to consider why donors choose to give to the Conservative party in the first place. Is it because of the access Ben Elliot can bring? Is it because of the leader? Or is it because they support the policy and ideology at the heart of conservatism? I hope it would be the third.

Conservative party chairman Ben Elliot, left, with Carrie Johnson, Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries, Scotland Secretary Alister Jack and others listen as Boris Johnson announces his resignation as Conservative party leader in Downing Street (Picture: Daniel Leal/AFP via Getty Images)

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However, if it is the other two, as I fear, it calls into question whether there is an implied or expressed quid pro quo. Donor money, broadly, is of two types: dumb, where it wants nothing in return, and smart, where it is coupled with either “what I want” or “what I want to do”.

The answer, to some extent, is to ascertain the motives that underpin giving and for more vetting. It is insufficient simply to say that “every donation is taken in full compliance with electoral commission rules”.

I have been subjected to far greater scrutiny than most other donors; for example, very few would be asked what the source of their money was.

The lack of vetting has led to well-publicised consequences, such as the award of unlawful Covid contracts. I believe that anyone who wants to give donations under the current system should be subject to questioning.

Anyone who donates anything under £7,500 should have to answer questions from a party official with requisite due diligence skills and experience.

Anyone donating between £7,500-£50,000 should additionally have to fill in a questionnaire, ensuring they are not expecting any quid pro quo. If the party is willing to reform, I would be happy to provide guidance on this, drawing on previous projects involving hospitality extended by investment banks, law firms and management consultants.

Any donations above £50,000 should be outsourced to an external, independent organisation which performs due diligence, looking into source of wealth.

It is also unacceptable that the public only gets to learn long after the event who funded whose leadership bid and by how much.

However, if the party truly wants to reform and make active inroads into tackling the ‘favour’ culture, then there should be a cap on donations. I think that should be £25,000, but some have suggested lower.

This would have a profound effect on the party as a whole, but if the public saw that they were being co-opted through grassroots political action it could create a new source of funding that would undermine the current system of the privileged few gaining access.

This is badly needed as the current party membership of about 180,000 is not a fair representation of UK society. While pursuing the levelling-up agenda, the party should keep this objective in mind: broadening membership and, in turn, widening the funding base.

To be fair to the Conservatives, if they are minded to consider some of these changes, then Labour and the Lib Dems would have to follow suit, otherwise Labour would have a huge advantage, given their trade union funding base.

Conservatives need to admit that CCHQ’s funding and governance is no longer fit for purpose for the 21st century. Since Ben Elliot set up the ‘advisory board’ – known as the 250 Club as its members have donated more than £250,000 – it has taken access capitalism to a new level within the party.

There is no transparency about who is on the board; when it meets; who sets the agenda; and no minutes or record of what is discussed. I find this completely unacceptable. In any other setting, such as a corporate board of shareholders, this would not be tolerated. What example does this set? There are multiple layers of boards within the party with no transparency about their membership.

Then there is the question of the party chairs. Who should they truly represent: the broader party membership, constituents, the parliamentary party, or donors? I believe it should either be a parliamentary party appointee or a grassroots appointee, someone in touch with how people in the shires feel. It appears to be a prime ministerial appointment, but is that the right procedure? We need the party to connect once again with the grassroots.

Years of government under successive Prime Ministers have eroded the efficacy of party leadership. CCHQ is undermining our democracy and whoever wins this leadership contest must modernise and restructure how the party is governed and financed. My support will be for the candidate with the courage to deliver institutional change at CCHQ.

Mohamed Amersi is a businessman and Conservative party donor

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