‘Taken Over by Big Fat Cat Sponsors’Making Friends and Influencing Ministers at Conservative Conference
Sam Bright and Max Colbert explore the ways in which well-connected corporations are given the opportunity to whisper into the ear of power at the Tory Party conference
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Rain and rail strikes accompany Conservative members as they carry their hangovers home after this year’s party conference. The event, seen as a make-or-break for Liz Truss, just a month after her election as party leader, was widely avoided by party grandees and Tory MPs, who tried to avoid being caught in a political bonfire.
Following the ‘mini-budget’ presented by Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng less than a fortnight ago, and a couple of “changes of direction”, the markets have been thrown into chaos and the Conservative Party’s poll ratings have tanked. A new poll from Omnisis last week put Labour’s lead at 32 points – with some pollsters predicting a massive 100+ majority for Keir Starmer’s party if this is replicated in a general election.
However, the downbeat mood of this year’s Conservative conference has masked the hive of activity on the fringes of the event, which have – as always – been well populated by MPs, advisors, lobbyists, and private firms.
This rubbing of shoulders between Government representatives and private stakeholders is nothing new, and largely passes without comment from the insider journalists who bounce around the party conferences. But like the scandal of MPs’ second jobs, that erupted following the case of then-Conservative MP Owen Paterson in November last year, just because something is a well-known bug of the Westminster system, doesn’t mean it is immune from scrutiny.
For those concerned about the ideological direction of Truss’ administration, more insight is provided by the regular participants of this year’s conference events. Our calculations suggest that members of the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) appeared 19 times at official events (not counting drinks receptions) during the four-day affair.
The IEA is the ideological engine room of the Truss regime, and forms one of several lobbying groups in the ‘Tufton Street network’ – a co-ordinated nexus of self-proclaimed think tanks, their funding sources largely hidden, that support low-tax, small-state policies. It has been noted that the ‘Tufton Street tent’, in which these groups host their various events, was notably well populated this year – presumably as party members and MPs sought to measure the economic pulse of the new Government.
It’s common practice for fringe conference events to be sponsored by a private company. However, the firm in question doesn’t simply receive advertising space; it is also typically offered the opportunity to sit on the panel in question, potentially alongside ministers, MPs and journalists.
At this year’s Conservative bash, we saw several events on housebuilding either sponsored by or featuring property developers – firms that, ultimately, are more interested in maximising profit than ensuring that the country’s housing needs are fulfilled. The website Conservative Home, for example, hosted one such event – ‘building for growth’ – in alliance with the Home Builders Federation, an industry body representing the interests of developers. Lee Rowley MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State with responsibility for housing strategy, also participated in this event.
Potential conflicts of interest likewise arise through the attendance of firms that are actively engaged in, or are bidding for, Government contracts. This list includes the controversial big data firm Palantir, the defence contractor Raytheon, accountancy firm Ernst and Young, tech firms Amazon and Google, the outsourcing giant Capita, and the engineering firm Costain – all of which featured at Conservative conference events, having won central Government contracts in recent years.
The controversial energy company Drax also sponsored an event at conference, hosted by the right-wing Spectator magazine. It has been revealed that Drax, which runs the UK’s largest power station in Yorkshire, has received billions of pounds in green energy subsidies from UK taxpayers despite cutting down environmentally-important forests. The sponsored event was entitled ‘What does “levelling up” really mean?’, and featured Dehenna Davison MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, and Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen.
“Like a large number of businesses, including many who work with the Government, we attended both the Labour and Conservative Party conferences. This is something that is entirely normal and has been widely practised for many years, by businesses of all kinds,” a Palantir spokesperson told Byline Times.
There’s no suggestion that Government deals are struck among conference attendees, or that any rules have been broken, but private firms in search of public sector work won’t be harming their chances by peacocking in front of Conservative MPs. And they certainly don’t attend conference for the warm white wine. All firms cited in this article have been approached for comment.
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‘A Complete Farce’
Conservative donors were another key constituency mingling at conference events this year. At least 21 firms with financial ties to the Conservatives – either the firms or their directors have donated – sponsored conference events this year, according to our calculations.
It’s widely known that the Conservative Party has created a system in which donors are given access to ministers. The Leader’s Group, entry to which costs £50,000 a year, awards special access to ministers at dinners and private events. One-off donations at the Conservative Party’s annual fundraising gatherings can also achieve the same goal, while the highest-value donors were – under Boris Johnson – invited to join a secret Downing Street ‘advisory board’, where they could submit their thoughts to advisors and ministers.
It was revealed last week that Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng attended a private champagne reception with hedge fund managers following his mini-budget on 23 September. From December 2019 to September 2021, hedge funds and finance tycoons donated £11 million to the Conservative Party.
The prevalence of donors at Tory conference, their private firms sponsoring fringe events, is perhaps simply another way in which this cohort exerts influence over the Conservative Party and the wider political ecosystem.
This intermingling of private and public interests is facilitated by lobbying firms – public relations companies that represent corporations but often have former advisors, MPs and ministers on their payroll. Several of these firms sponsored events and hosted parties at this year’s conference. It was recently revealed that three Downing Street aides, including chief of staff Mark Fullbrook, were being paid through his lobbying company, Fullbrook Strategies.
John Strafford, who runs the Conservative Campaign for Democracy, has been to every Conservative conference since 1964. This year’s was “the worst I’ve ever been to,” he told BBC 5 Live earlier today. “The voluntary party and the ordinary party members no longer have any say or influence at all,” he said. Instead, “it has become a complete farce, totally controlled by Conservative central office.”
“The whole thing has been taken over by the big fat cat sponsors and the big financial people,” he added.
There is an ideological irony to this – one contained in the Prime Minister’s conference speech earlier today. Namely, Truss once again made a pitch for ‘free market’ principles, lamenting the supposed “enemies of enterprise” who are opposing economic growth by questioning the Government’s belief in lower taxes for the rich and reduced corporate regulation. Yet, at the same time, the party has erected barriers to firms and individuals that wish to bend the ear of decision-makers – reserving this privilege to the financially generous and politically well-connected.
Liz Truss preaches the free market, while her party provides a concierge service to the wealthy.
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.