Today
Sun 5 December 2021

Sam Bright explores the ways in which party donors and corporate interests are warping British democracy

No longer something that happens everywhere else, in supposedly less civilised parts of the world, accusations of corruption are finally being levelled at the Westminster political system.

These claims have been triggered by a scandal involving Owen Paterson – a soon-to-be former Conservative MP who retains two private sector jobs alongside his parliamentary duties, which pay him more than £100,000 a year.

The parliamentary standards commissioner found Paterson guilty of an “egregious” breach of lobbying rules, in advocating on behalf of these companies, and handed down a 30-day suspension to the North Shropshire MP. The Prime Minister first attempted to overturn this suspension, before his plan unravelled – ultimately resulting in Paterson announcing his belated resignation from Parliament.

However, while tales of corruption now dominate the front pages of national newspapers, the full details have been seeping out of Westminster for years – largely unnoticed, or at least marginalised, by the majority of the mainstream press.

The problem is more extensive and more systemic than even the current headlines suggest.


An Honour and a Privilege

Money still buys privilege and access in British politics – as acutely seen in the Conservative Party, which harvested £13.3 million from individual donors during the 2019 General Election campaign. Labour, by contrast, is mostly funded by trade unions.

This results in access. The Conservative Party has created a system of incentives for big-money donors, offering perks to individuals who donate the most. More than 80% of Conservative funding for the 2019 election came from members of the ‘Leader’s Group’ – an elite dining society reserved for the most generous Conservative donors. Its membership is reserved for those who have donated at least £50,000 to the party in a single year. In exchange, members can attend exclusive events with senior Cabinet members and Conservative figures.

OpenDemocracy revealed in November 2019 that Boris Johnson had attended at least six meetings of the Leader’s Group since 2016, while the summits were regularly held at official Government residences.

For donors who seek an even closer relationship with senior Conservatives, exclusive events are regularly offered by the party. Notoriously, a former Russian minister’s wife paid £160,000 to play a tennis match with Johnson and the then Prime Minister David Cameron in 2014. The Conservative Party has received in excess of £3.5 million from Russian donors since 2010.

The privileged access awarded to Conservative donors has been in full view during the Coronavirus pandemic – partly as a consequence of the Government’s desperate attempts to procure services from the private sector.

Indeed, former Health Minister Lord James Bethell – who led the Government’s work with private companies – has openly admitted that “informal arrangements” were used in public sector procurement. Lord Bethell’s candour came in response to scrutiny from House of Lords members, after Byline Times revealed that the minister had conducted a private meeting with a Conservative Party donor, a month before his firm was awarded COVID contracts, without competition, worth hundreds of millions of pounds.

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The global supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) “completely collapsed” after the onset of the pandemic, Lord Bethell said, prompting the Government to rely “on a very large network of contacts and informal arrangements in order to reach the people who could manufacture, often moving their manufacturing from one product to another”.

Byline Times was also the first newspaper to reveal the private meeting held between Lord Bethell, Paterson and one of the companies that employs Paterson, held on 6 April 2020. The company in question has subsequently been awarded COVID-related contracts worth roughly half a billion pounds.

In total, Government contracts worth at least £3 billion have been awarded to Conservative friends and donors during the crisis, Byline Times and The Citizens have calculated. Several of Lord Bethell’s meetings during the early stages of the pandemic were also attended by former Conservative Treasurer Lord Andrew Feldman – the party’s former chief fundraiser – who worked as an unpaid advisor to Lord Bethell between March and May last year.

The Government’s own anti-corruption strategy prioritises “greater procurement transparency” as one of its goals, alongside “greater confidence in efficient and legitimate contract management”. However, the Government has staunchly refused to release the minutes of Paterson’s meeting with Lord Bethell, and has been found guilty of acting unlawfully in failing to promptly release the details of its deals with private firms.

The Government’s Anti-Corruption Champion, responsible for implementing the anti-corruption strategy, is John Penrose MP. He is the husband of Baroness Dido Harding – head of the Test and Trace programme.

But the intersection of public sector appointments and political party donations has not only been witnessed in relation to the pandemic.

The Byline Intelligence Team has calculated that a quarter of top Conservative donors – those who have donated more than £100,000 to the party – have received a title or a peerage. Of the Conservative Party’s 20 biggest donors since 2010 – those donating more than £1.5 million – 55% (11) have received an honour or a title. Ten were given these perks in the past decade.

A more recent trend, and one catalogued extensively by Byline Times, has been a concerted attempt to appoint Conservative-leaning figures to public bodies. One former Government official told the Financial Times that “there has been a lot of placement of political cronies” and that “Number 10 has taken a close interest in it for the past year-and-a-half”.

It has been calculated, for example, that at least 16 Conservative Party allies have been given supposedly ‘independent’ roles in Government departments.

Byline Times revealed last December, for example, that Jacob Rees-Mogg’s business partner – also a former Conservative Party vice-chair – had been appointed as a non-executive director of the Department for International Trade. He was appointed alongside Douglas Carswell, a former Conservative MP and a senior figure in the Vote Leave EU Referendum campaign.

Other Government non-executive directors include Ben Goldsmith, Conservative donor and brother of minister Lord Zac Goldsmith; Gisela Stuart, co-chair of the Vote Leave campaign; and Nick Timothy, a former advisor to Theresa May and a Telegraph columnist.


No Brown Envelopes

Owen Paterson’s breach of lobbying rules was one of the most blatant in recent times, but the infiltration of private firms into Parliament is widespread.

Byline Times calculated that the 59 Conservative MPs who actively supported the reversal of Paterson’s recommended suspension have private sector jobs – alongside their parliamentary duties – worth in excess of £1 million a year.

New proposals have now been mooted that would see a ban on MPs consulting for private firms – a move backed by 79% of respondents in a recent independent Omnisis poll commissioned by Byline Times – and the Guardian has revealed that 30 MPs would be forced to give up their second jobs as a result.

This overt employment of MPs by private companies, combined with the sheer scale of private sector donations to the Conservative Party outlined above, has the potential to skew Government policy in favour of corporate interests – not to mention the possibility of these firms winning public contracts.

Consequently, it is perhaps of little surprise that a majority (58%) of people polled by Omnisis believed that Johnson’s Government is corrupt. 27% of people asked strongly agreed that it is, while 31% agreed, 26% neither agreed nor disagreed, 13% disagreed, and only 3% strongly disagreed.

Of those who voted for the Conservatives in the 2019 General Election, 37% of those surveyed said that they believed that the Government is corrupt, while 32% disagreed.

Yet, until the dam broke last week, few in the mainstream press had been willing to expose the corrupting forces that underwrite the Westminster system. This is, perhaps, because the media is owned by these same forces – by right-wing billionaires who meet in private with senior Government ministers.

The corruption infecting British politics is not the sort that is depicted in Hollywood films. There is no clandestine exchange of brown envelopes for favourable government treatment. The process is more complex, underhand, and arguably more sinister.

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