With the Conservatives considering a new leader, the Byline Intelligence Team and The Citizens inspect the party’s obscure sources of funding

As the Conservative Party considers whether to install a new leader, the party’s sources of finance are still to a large extent opaque.

Indeed, the party’s reliance on funding through unincorporated associations – such as dining and members’ clubs – is a transparency vacuum that has been ongoing for some time.

An analysis of publicly-available data from the Electoral Commission reveals that the Conservative Party received more than £20 million in donations from unincorporated associations over the last decade – while 68% of this figure (roughly £14 million) was donated via just 29 groups, many of which don’t disclose their membership.

Labour has received £8.5 million from unincorporated associations during the same period, while the Liberal Democrats received £5.2 million. The Conservative Party therefore received 60% of all donations made by these organisations.

The Electoral Commission states that only donations in excess of £7,500 to an unincorporated association must be registered, and only if that same association donates more than £25,000 to a political cause in a calendar year. This has raised concerns that donating via unincorporated associations is an easy way for donors to give large sums of money without having to reveal their identities to the Electoral Commission. 

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Wining and Dining

The United and Cecil Club is one of the unincorporated associations that has donated the most to the Conservative Party over the last decade – giving more than £1.1 million since 2010, including to candidates standing in marginal ‘Red Wall’ seats.

The club – which often meets at the Carlton Club in the St James’s area of London – generates income from membership fees and donations. At one event hosted by the group, mining industry magnate Nathan Steinberg was reported to have paid £25,000 for a bronze statue of David Cameron riding a bicycle. Steinberg at the time stated he “did not wish to comment” on whether purchasing it was a thinly veiled means of political fundraising

The Carlton Club itself (and its political committee) has donated more than £478,000 to the Conservatives since 2010. Male-only until 2008 and secretive about its membership, the club is often referred to as the “spiritual home” of the Conservatives. It was famously the seat of formal discussions between Conservative MPs over whether or not the party should remain in coalition with the Liberal Party in 1922.

Indeed, many of these unincorporated associations were set up with the explicit aim of backing the Conservative Party and its candidates. The Sixty Six Club in Bournemouth was established in 1966 with the aim of supporting its local MP Sir John Eden. Now chaired by Conservative MP Conor Burns, the group has donated a total of £157,068 since 2010 and regularly hosts senior Conservatives.

The Magna Carta Club, established in 1988 to “improve communications between business and political leaders” and controlled by the Surrey Heath Conservative Association, has donated more than £182,500 to Michael Gove, currently the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, since 2009. 

Gove is also linked to the Strangers Gallery, a luncheon club which offers the chance to “speak to the Rt Hon Michael Gove on a one-to-one basis”. The club has given £87,000 to the Conservatives in the last decade.

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss recently faced criticism for “explicitly” insisting on hosting US trade representatives at a members’ club run by a Conservative Party donor. 

Other sources of Conservative funding from unincorporated associations operate closer to Labour’s trade union model.

For example, the National Conservative Draws Society, chaired by Conservative peer Lord Smith of Hindhead, has donated close to £9.5 million since 2010. In this case, donations are chiefly made up of £1 per-week contributions from its 20,000 members. 

Smith also chairs the Association of Conservative Clubs – the umbrella for 1,100 smaller groups such as working men’s clubs, conservative and unionist clubs, breakfast, luncheon and supper collectives, and constitutional clubs. Put together, the Association has donated £4 million during this time period.

During the 2019 General Election campaign, the Conservative Party accounted for just under two-thirds of all political donations. While Labour still overwhelmingly receives the majority of its funding from trade unions, the Conservatives received over double that amount in individual donations, and recorded the highest average value per donation.


Club Perks 

One of the concerns raised about the network of Conservative Party-linked social clubs is how they allow access to decision-makers, and seemingly facilitate public honours, in exchange for donations.

For example, members of the Midlands Industrial Council, a long-established unincorporated association, have donated £6.6 million to Conservative causes in the last decade.

The Byline Intelligence Team and The Citizens have previously revealed that 11 of the Conservative Party’s top 20 donors since 2010 have received an honour or a title.

Another Conservative association – the Leader’s Group – offers access to senior Cabinet ministers and grandees in exchange for annual dues of £50,000.

The clubs also present an opportunity for wider fundraising. Elite Conservative Party donor Alexander Temerko paid £90,000 for a bronze bust of David Cameron, while a 2019 event at Hurlingham Hall hosted by the outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May asked attendees to pay £1,500 for exclusive access to her successor, at that time either Jeremy Hunt or Boris Johnson.

Lubov Chernukhin, wife of Russia’s former finance minister Vladimir Chernukhin, has also previously paid £160,000 for a tennis match with Johnson and £135,000 for a night out with May.

The costs involved, and the opaque nature of these events, means that Conservative club culture excludes the ordinary voter or party member, creating a special clique for the highly wealthy to support the Conservatives and gain access to those who occupy the corridors of power. 

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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