A look into the battle for political donors

11 Min Read
A look into the battle for political donors

(Alamy)

7 minutes reading

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

The cash-for-access event has previously auctioned items such as a home-cooked meal with Michael Gove or dinner at the Churchill War Rooms with then Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson.

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

That was revealed by the Post on Sunday that Rishi Sunak, who was due to give a speech at the fundraiser, pulled out at the last minute, prompting calls for a refund.

Although he has never heard of refund requests, Charles McDowell, member of the CCHQ treasurer’s team, tells PoliticsHome that the organizers had considered canceling the event altogether at the start of the elections, but ultimately decided against this.

“We had discussed whether we should continue with the ball at all. We could have called the whole thing off, but we felt that so much organization had gone into it and that the Cabinet Ministers will be very much in attendance that we should continue as normal. I think the donors understand that the Prime Minister has an election to focus on.”

But senior Conservative donors and former party treasurers Lord Marland and Lord Farmer are telling the story PoliticsHome They won’t be at the ball tonight. Boris Johnson’s 60th birthday party this weekend is proving more popular.

Over there [were] well over a quarter of a million donors who went to this ball at the Hurlingham Club and now they don’t anymore

A number of prominent Tory donors have expressed their dismay at the state of the party, with some fleeing to Nigel Farage’s Reform Party and others to Keir Starmer’s ‘changed’ Labor Party, taking their money brought.

A Tory source confirms the once unbeatable fundraising machine is broken and the money is drying up. “We certainly have difficulty with donations. I know major donors who are adamant that they will not support the current Conservative Party.”

“He who pays the piper decides the tune,” says a Reform source. “Over there [were] over a quarter of a million donors who went to this ball at the Hurlingham Club and now don’t go anymore – they gave their money to Reform.”

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A former Conservative donor and businessman, who voted Tory at the last election, explains PoliticsHome he can no longer vote for the party because they have “betrayed every basic principle”.

He explains: “While [Sunak] While he claimed to stand for true Conservative principles, I don’t think there’s anything he’s done since becoming Prime Minister that really exemplifies that.”

Another former Tory donor admits he is “reform curious” but worries about the reputational damage that could come from publicly supporting the party: “I don’t necessarily want to join a party that is seen by many as borderline racist. .”

The former donor admits to being extremely impressed by Reform’s ‘contract’ (manifesto) published on Monday. “The only manifesto that is different and offers something bold as a solution to some of the country’s biggest problems is reform. So on a pure manifesto basis I would vote for Reform any day,” he says.

Yesterday John Caudwell, the billionaire businessman and Tory donor, backed Labor for the first time but stopped short of pledging funding. Charles McDowell of CCHQ criticizes Caudwell’s decision: “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 will give £100,000 in the next few days.”

He understands that donors who did not vote Conservative until two months ago have been thinking again “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 about reform, the more less they engage with it and feel that it is a real option.”

The latest YouGov MRP survey predicts the Conservative Party will return just 108 seats – the lowest in the party’s history – giving Labor a record majority of 200 seats. McDowell claims the state of donations to the Tories is ‘very good, surprisingly good’ given their position in the polls and ‘the realistic outcome that is likely to come’.

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“Everyone has their grievances and things they’re not too keen on, but overall the support is holding up,” he says. PoliticsHome. “People have said in the past they would go to Reform or Labour, but they have become very concerned about taxes and so they have stayed with us.”

Lord Farmer agrees the party has been through a “difficult time” recently and recognizes the appeal of reform. “Their manifesto is easy to read and they hit all the points. It looks very attractive, but you have to look at the chance that they will win seats.”

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

“I have been a supporter of Rishi. I think he has actually been a good prime minister. He worked extremely hard,” Farmer said. “He had a difficult legacy to work from and I think there is clearly fatigue among the population after 14 years of Tory rule.”

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

Alli is seen as the expert organiser, with a senior Labor source saying he is “brilliantly organised”. Senior Labor sources suggest the party is likely to meet the increased £35m ceiling on election spending, while the Tories fear that – having been the ones to raise the general election spending limit – they may not be on course to to achieve this.

“The Tories have always had this fundraising machine, which Labor never had, and it’s good to see that [since Blair] it is here and alive, and long may it last,” says Lord Levy PoliticsHome.

“Keir’s arrival has, to be honest, made a dramatic difference. [Donors] Stuart Roden, Matthew Slotover and Clive Lewis, these people wouldn’t have gone anywhere near Jeremy Corbyn and are clearly very happy to support Keir… They support the Labor Party, but the leader makes a difference to the extent she does. Worried.”

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

“Since then I’ve brought in quite a few donors – those who have been involved in the past, and some new ones,” he says, although he is coy about the identity of these potential switchers.

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

A Labor source suggests donors are often wooed over coffee, lunch or dinner, with more formal events organized to bring couples together to meet Starmer and talk politics. “If they are a serious donor, I will always say, ‘If you want to meet the leader, or someone from the shadow cabinet – normally the leader where they can ask questions – please do so,’” Levy adds.

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

The Tories, however, are having a very different conversation. McDowell admits that some Tory donors have already started to figure out where their post-election money will go in a future leadership contest. “Everyone has a vision of what can happen next,” he says PoliticsHome. “People are thinking about it, if not talking about it openly, but there are also some donors who are talking about it.”

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