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Fri 17 September 2021

An investigation into the governing party’s elite donors by the Byline Intelligence Team and The Citizens reveals that the vast majority received their awards in the same time period as they were gifting significant sums of money

More than a quarter of Conservative donors who have given more than £100,000 to the party hold a title or honour.

Three-quarters of the party’s elite donors received these titles after the Conservatives came to power in 2010, an investigation by the Byline Intelligence Team and The Citizens has found.

Of the Conservative Party’s 20 biggest donors since 2010 – those donating more than £1.5 million – 55% (11) have received an honour or title. Ten were given these rewards in the last decade.

Nineteen of 260 donors who gave more than £100,000 in a single donation hold life peerages. 20 have been knighted and 14 hold Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBEs).

A further eight have the awards of Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBEs), and three have been awarded Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBEs).

The revelation comes after recent analysis by the Byline Intelligence Team and The Citizens uncovered how older, white, male Londoners in the financial services sector dominate a list of 286 individuals who have donated £100,000 or more to Conservative HQ in the past decade.


Top Roles for Top Donors

The Byline Intelligence Team and The Citizens were able to gather information on 259 of the 286 individuals who have given more than £100,000 to the Conservative Party between 2010 and 2020. Individuals with ‘generic’ names such as John Cook or David Thompson were excluded from the analysis, as were those who made smaller donations that cumulatively topped £100,000. 

Of the 259, at least 67 (26%) were found to hold some form of honour, title, or peerage. 

Only three elite donors held titles received either by birth or by marriage. These were the hereditary peer Lord Jamie Borwick, Lady Annabel Goldsmith, and Lady Alison De Haan. Lord Borwick’s son, Thomas Borwick, was a digital media strategist for the Conservative Party and Vote Leave campaign. Lady Goldsmith is the daughter of a marquess, whilst Lady De Haan is married to cruise ship tycoon Sir Roger De Haan. They are the only two women among the list of honoured or titled elite Conservative Party donors.  

The remaining 64 (96%) of those identified as holding titles or honours received their accolades through the New Year, Birthday or Prime Minister’s Resignation Honours system, or by being made a life peer by the leader of the Conservative Party.

While some have held their honours or peerages for many years, the majority have received their titles after the Conservatives came to power in 2010. This means that the vast majority of elite donors received their awards in the same time period as they were gifting significant sums of money to the party.

Among the Conservative’s 20 biggest financial supporters since 2010 – individuals who have donated more than £1.5 million –  eleven (55%) held some form of honour. Only one had been awarded their honour prior to 2011.

The majority of top Conservative donors received their honours as a result of the work they have carried out. One of the Conservative’s biggest financial backers, Sir Michael Davis, received his knighthood in 2015 for “services to Holocaust commemoration and education”. Sir Davis was the chair of the Holocaust Memorial Commission of the United Kingdom for several years.

The vast majority of elite donors received their awards in the same time period as they were gifting significant sums of money to the Conservative Party


‘Cash for Honours?’

A 2019 investigation by openDemocracy urged the Cabinet Office to look into the possibility of a new ‘cash for honours’ scandal due to the propensity of elite Conservative donors to receive honours. 

Since then, however, there has been little further scrutiny of the potential links between large donations and subsequent honours. 

In 2006 and 2007, Tony Blair’s Government was rocked by allegations of a system of donations providing quid pro quo honours to a range of individuals. Although no charges were brought against those implicated, the scandal raised concerns of cronyism within the government. 

However, the Labour scandal demonstrated the challenges in finding concrete evidence of wrongdoing when donors receive honours. It is not illegal to make a political donation in the hope or expectation of receiving an honour – the law is only broken when it can be proved that there has been an agreement that donations were made “in exchange for an honour”.

The large proportion of donors who have received honours or peerages soon after, or immediately before, gifting large sums of money to the Conservative Party does however raise questions about the ethics surrounding political donations, access to power, and the honours system itself.

Labour has called for the Conservative Party to explain its ‘advisory board’ – a system whereby generous donors receive regular face time with the Prime Minister and Chancellor. The board’s existence has raised eyebrows regarding the risk of potential cronyism and a new ‘cash for access’ scandal.

In 2012, the top Conservative Party donor, Peter Cruddas, who has donated close to £1.5 million in the past decade, was implicated in a cash for access scandal, several years before the advisory board was formed. He was forced to resign as Conservative Party Treasurer after footage appeared of him boasting to undercover reporters about the amounts of money required for things to “open up for you”.

Cruddas has faced further backlash after it was revealed that he had donated £500,000 to the Conservatives three days after taking his seat in the House of Lords earlier this year. The donation sparked fresh allegations that he had used his vast wealth to influence his appointment as a life peer. 

It is not illegal to make a political donation in the hope or expectation of receiving an honour

While it is true that donors receive honours in exchange for good work – such as charitable activities, support for the Conservative Party, or business success – there are occasions when it is not clear why an honour has been granted.

When Ehud Sheleg was knighted in 2019, it was in recognition of his “political and public service”, but Private Eye highlighted a string of questionable activities carried out by Sheleg in the past decade. These included tax evasion and a habit of dissolving companies to avoid liabilities. His service to political and public life is less clear. Shelag has donated more than £3.5 million since 2010.

Allegations of cronyism around the Conservatives and the honours system have been emerging for many years but, due to the difficulty in proving an explicit violation of electoral law, there has been a distinct lack of scrutiny and accountability. Although there is no evidence to suggest that many of the elite donors highlighted received their honours or peerages for anything more than their services to public life, the sheer quantity of top donors who have received titles either directly before, or immediately after, donating to the party merits – at the very least – further investigation. 

This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.

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