In a speech in 2010, David Cameron dubbed British political lobbying “the next big scandal waiting to happen”. Mr Cameron has had his own lobbying troubles since then over the Greensill affair. But his words were, in all senses, on the money. “I believe that secret corporate lobbying, like the expenses scandal, goes to the heart of why people are so fed up with politics,” he said. “It arouses people’s worst fears and suspicions about how our political system works, with money buying power, power fishing for money and a cosy club at the top making decisions in their own interest.”
Fast forward from 2010 to today, and read the recent torrent of allegations about the way that Ben Elliot, Boris Johnson’s 2019 choice as Conservative co-chairman and high-end party fundraiser, may be blurring the line between politics and business. Many of these allegations would appear to follow Mr Cameron’s script with alarming accuracy.
Mr Elliot is an exceptionally well-connected Etonian high roller. He is a nephew of the Duchess of Cornwall, a poker-playing chum of the Goldsmith family and the founder of Quintessentially, a concierge company pandering to the whims of the super-rich, not least super-rich Russians. Mr Elliot tells his clients he knows “the right people to contact, for the right favour” and offers “access to the inaccessible”. He is known as “Mr Access All Areas”. He is also a friend of Mr Johnson, whose relationship with money is chaotic, and who appears happy to outsource the raising of Tory party funds to his fellow Etonian.
Three serious allegations demand particular attention. The first is that Mr Elliot may have a tier of elite Tory donors, some of whom pay £250,000 a year to be members of a shadowy “advisory board”, giving regular access to Mr Johnson and the chancellor, Rishi Sunak. Board members, their donations, the ministers they meet and what they discuss are inadequately disclosed, indicating a loophole in Britain’s party funding rules. The second is that Mr Elliot’s system may have blurred the lines between politics and business, partly by using Quintessentially and other private companies, such as Hod Hill, to keep donors and the party in contact, with the potential for insider commercial advantage. The third is that some of these relationships may cross security boundaries, including relations with Russian, Chinese and Middle Eastern interests, an issue on which the committee on standards in public life recently issued a strong report, and one that has surfaced in the role of the advisory board donor and UK citizen Mohammed Amersi.
All this is turbocharged by Mr Johnson’s aversion to transparency about his own and his party’s money, the favours (including honours) given to donors and other insiders, and the awarding of government contracts, often extremely large ones. It is made acute by the government’s characteristically vengeful elections bill. As well as clamping down on access to voting, this aims to reduce the Electoral Commission’s power to investigate possible abuses of political finance laws (recently used in relation to Mr Johnson’s Downing Street flat).
It is high time for the Conservative party to be forced to come clean and let the sunlight in on its financial networks under Mr Johnson. Unless and until that happens, it is becoming increasingly possible that lobbying is no longer a scandal waiting to happen but one that is happening here, now, and at the very top of British government.