Latest U.K. Scandals Show a System Rife With Insider Ties
LONDON — A multimillion-dollar payday for a former British prime minister. A secretive group of wealthy donors with special access to top …
LONDON — A multimillion-dollar payday for a former British prime minister. A secretive group of wealthy donors with special access to top politicians. A party fund-raiser with close connections not just to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, but also to Britain’s royal family.
Already under fire over lucrative contracts awarded to politically connected firms during the pandemic, Britain’s governing Conservative Party is being battered by a litany of new accusations of influence-peddling, cronyism and profiteering.
While no laws or even rules appear to have been violated, critics say that the accusations point to a troubling decline in accepted standards in public life and reinforce their contention that the system has too few checks and balances to prevent such behavior.
This week, the BBC reported that David Cameron, a former prime minister, earned as much as $10 million working for a now-collapsed company created by Lex Greensill, a financier who had enjoyed a special role inside Mr. Cameron’s government.
That followed separate media reports focusing on the Conservative Party’s supremely well-networked co-chairman, Ben Elliot, who, according to a source named in The Financial Times, introduced a new structure for party fund-raising based on an old principle: More cash buys more access.
Mr. Elliot is the nephew of Prince Charles’s wife, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall.
Britain is no stranger to political scandals, including one in 2009 over expense claims by lawmakers. But amid the crush of allegations lately, experts worry that the government is lapsing into what the opposition Labour leader, Keir Starmer, has sought to label “Tory sleaze.”
“We are at a dangerous moment, and I think we probably need a bit of a long hard look at it and a conscious reset,” said Hannah White, deputy director of the Institute for Government, a research institute.
“We have a system which is not terribly fit for purpose, a government that does not want to be told what to do by holier-than-thou regulators, and a government which, since the start of the pandemic, has been operating in really exceptional circumstances,” she added.
Steven Fielding, a professor of political history at Nottingham University, said the traditional controls were under strain partly because Britain’s Conservatives were entrenched in power and had been for more than a decade, and partly because of Mr. Johnson’s own personality.
The Conservatives wield enormous legislative power, thanks to a large parliamentary majority. So if business leaders want access to the higher reaches of government to influence policy decisions, the easiest avenue is through the party. And the unofficial codes that restrained politicians of an earlier era seem to count for little under Mr. Johnson who, has often defied such constraints throughout an unorthodox career.
The prime minister has brushed off complaints over the financing of a Caribbean vacation, the pricey refurbishment of his apartment in Downing Street and his refusal to accept the judgment of an ethics adviser that a senior cabinet minister, Priti Patel, broke official rules by bullying civil servants.
“If you respect the rules and regulations and how things have been done in the past, the system works,” Professor Fielding said. “But the Conservatives have been in power since 2010, and we have a uniquely rapacious prime minister who wants to use whatever advantage the Conservatives have in power to ensure they remain there.”
“There are few formal checks and balances,” he said. “It’s more about ‘gentlemen’s agreements,’ and we haven’t got a ‘gentleman’ as prime minister.”
Nor has Mr. Cameron, one of his predecessors, set the best example since resigning in 2016 after losing the referendum he called on Brexit. Mr. Cameron has denied the BBC’s claim, based on a letter it obtained, that he was paid around $10 million by the now-defunct Greensill Capital. But he has refused to say how much he did earn.
What is not in dispute is that to earn his pay, Mr. Cameron did little more than bombard ministers and officials with dozens of emails and text messages in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to gain public support for Greensill Capital.
Although one opposition lawmaker described the approaches as “more like stalking than lobbying,” Mr. Cameron complied with the rules mainly because he was employed by Greensill, rather than acting as an external lobbyist, which would have obliged him to operate under a more stringent set of regulations.
That neatly illustrates the problem, analysts say.
“The question is, ‘If he didn’t do anything wrong, but it feels wrong, does that mean the system is not fit for purpose?’ Quite possibly,” said Ms. White.
Conservative Party fund-raising has always been a murky activity, but media reports suggest that Mr. Elliot, the ultimate insider, has made it a more professional, transactional and lucrative process, once again without breaking any particular rules.
Mr. Elliot attended Britain’s most famous private school, Eton, which also educated Mr. Cameron and Mr. Johnson. He is younger than them but equally well-networked, and has made a career out of his A-list address book.
Until recently he was best known as a founder of Quintessentially, a luxury concierge service that caters to the wealthy, aiming to fulfill “every request — however big or small” and promising members the best seats at restaurants, cultural events and V.I.P. experiences.
Last month, The Financial Times reported that Mr. Elliot had introduced a similar model to the Conservative Party’s fund-raising mechanism through an “advisory board,” a group of elite donors whose contributions are rewarded with access to the most powerful people in government.
That comes with a hefty price tag — usually a donation of around 250,000 pounds, about $350,000, to the Conservative Party, one businessman and donor, Mohamed Amersi, told the newspaper. Mr. Amersi, who was a client of Quintessentially, also told The Sunday Times that he had paid Mr. Elliot to introduce him to Prince Charles, in 2013. Mr. Amersi’s foundation did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
When asked for comment by Mr. Elliot or the party, the Conservative Party said in a statement that its donations were properly and transparently declared to the Electoral Commission, an independent watchdog, published by them, and complied fully with the law.
To seasoned observers of British politics, the claims are wearily familiar. In the 1990s some Conservative lawmakers were accused of taking payments to raise questions in Parliament on behalf of businesses or individuals.
Although the opposition Labour Party generally relies on funding from trade unions, it ran into trouble under a former leader and prime minister, Tony Blair, when it emerged that the ex-Formula One boss, Bernie Ecclestone, had donated £1 million, the equivalent today of $1.38 million. The donation was not initially made public and was eventually repaid after claims that it was influencing policy on tobacco sponsorship for Formula One.
Britain has strict limits on spending in general elections, designed to tamp down fund-raising, and there have been several attempts to control donations and clean up standards in public life. But few analysts believe they are comprehensive enough.
“The different bits of apparatus aren’t terribly well joined up because they have all been created in response to different scandals,” said Ms. White, who added that greater transparency was needed, particularly over party funding.
An impression of profiteering has been reinforced by the exceptional circumstances of the pandemic, when normal procurement rules were suspended in order to speed up orders for urgently needed supplies of basic medical equipment.
That enabled the government to act fast in an emergency, but it also resulted in some of the thousands of contracts being awarded via a secretive “V.I.P. lane” to a select few companies, some with connections to the Conservative Party.
The risk, analysts say, is that the reports of cronyism and cash for access undermine faith in public life at a moment when the government is asking for the public’s trust over critical public health measures.
“It’s really important for good government to show that there are rules, and rules have to be followed,” Ms. White said.
When they are not, the public needs to be reassured that “there are consequences for people, and that everyone is trying to do the right thing, rather than what they can get away with.”