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Thu, 18 July 2024

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The House Live All
By Ben Guerin
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Inside The Battle For Political Donors

(Alamy)

7 min read

Later today senior Conservative politicians and donors will descend on the Hurlingham Club for its annual Black and White Ball – one of the party’s biggest fundraising events of the year.

The cash-for-access event has previously auctioned off items like a home-cooked meal with Michael Gove or dinner in the Churchill War Rooms with then-defence secretary Gavin Williamson.

“It won’t be naked dances with Rishi, it will be pretty tame,” a senior Tory source jokes. 

It was revealed by the Mail on Sunday that Rishi Sunak, who was meant to deliver a speech at the fundraiser, pulled out at the last minute, prompting calls for refunds.

Although he hasn’t heard of refund requests, Charles McDowell, a member of CCHQ's Treasurer's team, tells PoliticsHome that organisers had been thinking of cancelling the event altogether at the start of the election, but ultimately decided against it.

“We had been debating whether or not to go ahead with the ball at all. We could have called the whole thing off but the view was that so much organisation had gone into it and it will be very well attended by cabinet ministers that we should continue as normal. I think donors understand the Prime Minister has an election to focus on.”

But senior Conservative donors and former party treasurers Lord Marland and Lord Farmer tell PoliticsHome they won’t be attending the ball this evening. Boris Johnson’s 60th birthday bash this weekend is proving more popular. 

There [were] a good ‘quarter of a million’ donors who were going to this ball at the Hurlingham Club and now are not

A number of prominent Tory donors have signalled their upset with the state of the party, with some fleeing to Nigel Farage’s Reform Party and others to Keir Starmer’s ‘changed’ Labour Party – taking their money with them.

A Tory source confirms that the once unbeatable fundraising machine is broken and money is drying up. “We are certainly struggling on donations. I know big donors who are adamant that they are not going to support the current Conservative Party.”

“He who pays the piper calls the tune,” a Reform source says. “There [were] a good ‘quarter of a million’ donors who were going to this ball at the Hurlingham Club and now are not – they've given their money to Reform.”

A previous Conservative donor and businessman, who at the last election was still voting Tory, tells PoliticsHome he can’t vote for the party again because they have “betrayed every basic principle”.

He explains: “While [Sunak] professed to stand for genuine Conservative principles, I don't think there is anything that he has done since he's been Prime Minister that really illustrates that.”

Another previous Tory donor admits he is “Reform-curious” but is worried about the reputational damage that might come with publicly supporting the party: “I don't necessarily want to align myself with a party that is perceived by many as being borderline racist.”

The former donor admits to being hugely impressed by Reform’s ‘contract’ (manifesto) published on Monday. “The only manifesto which is different and offering anything bold by way of solutions to some of the country's biggest problems is Reform. So on a pure manifesto basis, I would vote Reform every day”, he says.

Yesterday John Caudwell, the billionaire businessman and Tory donor endorsed Labour for the first time, though stopped short of pledging funding. Critiquing Caudwell’s decision, CCHQ’s Charles McDowell says: “There will always be the John Caudwells of the world but for every John there are a hundred other donors. Someone gave £200,000 yesterday (Tuesday); someone else is giving £100,000 in the next couple of days.”

He understands that donors who were, up until two months ago, not voting Conservative have had a rethink “because the message that ‘a vote for Reform is a vote for Labour’ is hitting hard” and “the more people see of Nigel Farage and hear of Reform, the less they engage with them and feel it is a real option”.

The latest YouGov MRP poll predicts the Conservative Party will return just 108 seats – the lowest in the party’s history – giving Labour a record breaking 200 seat majority. McDowell maintains that the state of donations to the Tories is “very good, surprisingly good”, considering their position in the polls and “the realistic result that is likely to come.”

“Everyone has their grievances and bits they are not so keen on but on the whole support is holding up,” he tells PoliticsHome. “People have said in the past that they were going to go over to Reform or Labour but they have become seriously concerned about taxes and have stayed with us because of it.”

Lord Farmer agrees that the party has been going through a “tough time” recently and recognises the allure of Reform. “Their manifesto reads easy and they're hitting all the points. It looks very attractive, but one needs to look at what's the likelihood of them winning any seats.”

The former party treasurer gives no indication he could be persuaded over to Reform, but his son George Farmer, former chair of Turning Point UK and husband of American political commentator and Trump supporter Candice Owen, donated £200,000 to the party in 2019. 

“I've been a supporter of Rishi. I think he's actually been a good Prime Minister. He's worked extremely hard,” Farmer says. “He had a difficult legacy to work from and I do think there's obviously a tiredness in the population after 14 years of Tory governance.” 

The Tory party’s desperate battle is a far cry from the recent successes of Labour’s “quite small but excellent” fundraising unit, led by Blairite figures who left the party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership but have since returned. They include Lord Waheed Alli, who is spearheading efforts to fulfil Starmer’s desire for private donations, Lord Michael Levy, whose Blair-era fundraising earned him the nickname ‘Lord Cashpoint’, and Vanessa Bowcock, Blair’s former ‘high-value fundraising’ manager.

Alli is seen as the expert organiser, with a senior Labour source saying he’s “organised brilliantly”. Senior Labour sources suggest that the party is likely to hit the increased election spending ceiling of £35m, while Tories fear that – after being the ones to raise the general election spending limit – they may not be on course to reach it.

“The Tories have always had this machine in terms of fundraising, which Labour had never had, and it's good to see that [since Blair] it's there and alive and kicking and well – long may that last,” Lord Levy tells PoliticsHome.

“Keir coming in is, frankly, what dramatically made the difference. [Donors] Stuart Roden, Matthew Slotover and Clive Lewis, these people wouldn't have gone near Jeremy Corbyn and are obviously very pleased to support Keir... They support the Labour Party, but the leader is what makes all the difference as far as they are concerned.”

Lord Levy was not involved with the party during Corbyn’s leadership but Starmer approached him to ask for help fundraising.

“I've since brought in quite a number of donors – ones that have been involved in the past, and some new ones,” he says, though he is coy about the identity of these potential switchers.

Lord Levy says many donors approach the party directly: “It depends on how well you know them. Some people have phoned me and said, 'Michael, we'd like to help the Labour Party – can we meet?' And I say, yes, of course. It may just be a meeting, it may be a lunch, it may be a dinner.”

A Labour source suggests that donors are often wooed over a coffee, lunch or dinner, with more formal events arranged to bring together couples to meet and talk politics with Starmer. “If they're a serious donor, I will always say: ‘If you want to meet the leader, or one of the shadow cabinet – normally the leader for them to ask any questions – please do so’,” adds Levy. 

PoliticsHome understands that Lord Levy and Starmer often meet at the leader's private home for updates on donations. Labour enjoyed its best ever year for private donations in 2023, raking in £350,000 more than the Tories in the first week of the election campaign.

The Tories, however, are having a quite different conversation. McDowell admits that some Tory donors have already begun working out where their funds will go after the election in a future leadership contest. “Everyone has a view on what may come next,” he tells PoliticsHome. “People are thinking about it, if not openly talking about it – but there are a couple of donors talking about it, too.”

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