As the Pandora papers show, access to the Tory party is being bought by a new class of tycoon funders 

One big theme has dominated Tory party conference at Manchester this week: levelling up. Boris Johnson, we are being told, is on a mission to rescue British working people who have been forgotten and left behind in today’s UK.

Peter Oborne 

According to this powerful narrative Keir Starmer’s Labour party is a manifestation of a “woke” metropolitan elite utterly alien to the “red wall” voters who flocked to the Tories at the last election.

The Pandora papers revelations undermine that Tory story. Yes, there are struggling people who have been forgotten by the system. Yes it’s a worthy cause to give them a much bigger say in public life. But no, the Tories don’t generally represent such people.

Johnson’s Conservative party essentially belongs to the super-rich. The billionaires. Those with privileged access to the prime minister and the chancellor of the exchequer. To the large and in many cases insalubrious cast of men and women with walk-on appearances in the Pandora papers scandal.

This class of Conservatives does not seem to see the British state – as Tories have historically claimed to do – as something to which you dedicate a life of service. They seem to see it rather differently: as something to be plundered and used for self-enrichment.

Take the honours system. Traditionally honours have been used to reward people who have contributed to the good of the nation. In recent history honours have become a commodity that may be bought and sold. Take public contracts. Traditionally they are won in open public competition. Not any more.

Oscar Wilde defined a cynic as someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Welcome to the world of Johnson and his squalid associates. It doesn’t appear to matter how Tory donors made their money, where they paid their taxes, or which corners they cut. What matters is the size of the donation.

CertainlyJohnson supports levelling up. He wants to level up the billionaires. They’ve grown richer than ever before under his premiership. This may help explain why Tory donors are so much more likely to win Covid contracts than others. Access, it seems, helps win contracts, and access can come in return for a fat donation.

This is why it is impossible to overestimate the importance of this week’s Pandora revelations. They make a textbook study of how the super-rich have bought politics. In some countries this phenomenon is out there and in the open.

Let’s take an example of another country suffering from fuel queues: Lebanon. It’s no surprise at all to find newly appointed prime minister Najib Mikati and central bank governor Riad Salameh among several Lebanese political and financial officials named in the Pandora papers as having wealth hidden in offshore tax havens – at a time when ordinary Lebanese are having their savings wiped out. Lebanon has long been run as a private fiefdom for the super-rich.

The Pandora papers show that Britain is heading the same way. Access to British politics – and in particular the Johnson Tories – has been bought wholesale by a new class of tycoon funders. They may be British citizens but in many cases they pay very little tax in this country, and are in many cases essentially based offshore.

Their existence has been an open secret for years but not publicly understood, perhaps in part because some of Britain’s wealthy newspaper owners themselves have a notorious reluctance to pay taxes.

It’s important to understand that this new system has only sprung up recently. Go back only a few decades and the Tory party could count on a mass membership for the bulk of its funds in the shape of small donations. In recent years membership has gone into freefall, and the donors have largely taken over.

Tony Blair (little surprise to see his appearance in Pandora) helped create this model during his famous period in opposition before 1997. Eager to sideline the unions, the ambitious young Labour leader and his aide Jonathan Powell encouraged fundraising from wealthy donors.

The Tories followed suit. They may have felt they had little choice. Money was hard to come by and the membership was dying. Suddenly party donors became important figures, men and women of note.

But it is Johnson who has been the most shameless by far about this arrangement. On becoming Tory leader he appointed Ben Elliot, whose former business clients include Mohamed Amersi, who looms large in the Pandora papers) as Tory co-chair. This appointment changed the structure of the British Tory party. And it is no surprise to learn, courtesy of the Pandora papers, that Elliot jointly owned a secret offshore film financing business.

At first sight Eton-educated Elliot looks like a copper-bottomed establishment Conservative. A nephew of the Duchess of Cornwall, Prince Charles’s wife, he’s the son of Simon Elliot, a Dorset landowner.

If you look more closely the appointment seems odder and odder. Tory chairs are normally powerful politicians in their own right – think Theresa May, David Davies or further back Norman Tebbit, William Whitelaw or Peter Carrington. Significant figures by any standards. The role of Conservative party chairs, from Carrington to May, was to represent the views of the Tory grassroots and explain the actions of their leadership.

I have never found serious evidence that Elliot does much of this important but gruelling political work, if any. Take the Hartlepool and Batley and Spen byelections. A traditional chair would have been a prominent figure organising the campaign and explaining the results on television. Elliot kept a very low profile.

Elliot is not even an MP and I can discover no significant record in British politics until he became treasurer for Zac Goldsmith’s campaign for the London mayoralty in 2016. Yet he’s at the heart of Johnson’s Tory establishment. He’s not there to talk to the grassroots. He’s there to manage the donors. The people who matter.

Traditionally that’s been the role of the party treasurer, a relatively lowly party official. In the modern Tory party the job has become so important that the treasurer has been promoted to party chair and effectively become the boss.

The Elliot model for the Tory party is based on his business, Quintessentially. It is a concierge service for rich people who want introductions and invitations at the top level of society. Amersi has deliciously called the system “access capitalism”, a term that deserves to find its way into a dictionary of quotations. You buy your way in.

Elliot will be remembered for turning politics into a financial commodity. Now he needs to come out in public and answer urgent questions: who investigates Tory donors? Does it matter if they don’t pay tax? Do you care if they have a murky past? Where do you stand on tax havens?

It’s not just Elliot who needs to break the habit of a lifetime and answer questions. Now that Pandora’s box has been well and truly opened. Johnson, the big winner from this rotten financial system, needs to explain to British voters why the Tory party appears to be funded by a new class of super-rich tax avoiders.

And tell us what they get in return.

Gove tells Conservative conference the north needs more homes

Mr Gove appeared at a planning inquiry into CALA Homes’ proposals to build on land known as Chapel Lane Meadow in Bagshot, which residents say threaten local wildlife and the character of the village.  Surrey Heath Borough Council, which recently lost its 5-year housing land supply, dropped opposition to the proposals last month, after concluding that the identified harms as a result of the proposal would not significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits.(2019/2020)

Michael Gove is MP for Surrey Heath – Owl

George Grylls

Michael Gove has suggested that the government will move away from concentrating housebuilding in the southeast of England to encourage more development in the north and midlands.

The new housing secretary promised to invest in the regeneration of inner city areas and said that he wanted to build more homes on “neglected brownfield sites”.

He attempted at the Conservative Party conference yesterday to define the levelling-up agenda only weeks after being put in charge of the prime minister’s flagship policy. He said that levelling up meant devolving more power to local leaders, raising living standards, improving services and restoring a sense of pride in communities.

At a fringe event hosted by the Policy Exchange think tank he also suggested that the focus on building homes in the southeast was misplaced and that people in “generation rent” were suffering more in the north and northeast.

“There are a variety of reasons for that that I need to look more closely at. But actually it shows that if you really, really want to help those who are currently in rented accommodation and want to own their own homes, then the focus shouldn’t necessarily be geographically where it has been beforehand,” he added.

Last year, Conservative backbenchers rebelled against a “mutant algorithm” designed to drive down house prices in the southeast by building more homes in and around London. After outcry from Tory MPs, the algorithm was amended to encourage more development in northern and Midlands cities.

Gove suggested yesterday that the targets could be tweaked further, saying that the government’s levelling-up agenda meant building more homes in regenerated city centres. “In my department, that will mean investing in urban regeneration with new homes on neglected brownfield sites,” he said. “It also means empowering local government to make a bigger difference for good, allowing communities and councillors to take back control of our future and making greener, and more beautiful places for everyone to live.”

Gove also said that the government would like to create new higher education institutions parts of the country such as Doncaster, Grimsby and Thanet. He said that there was a need for new technical colleges because students at traditional universities spent too much time discussing “the hermeneutics of Spiderman”.

Torbay hit by Universal Credit uplift

Council leader writes to MP.

local democracy reporter, Joe Ives

More than 13,500 people in Torbay are set to be hit by the end of the £20 Universal Credit uplift this week, with the leader of the council warning “there could never be a worse time” to make the move.

As covid hit in March 2020, the government launched a one-year temporary £20 increase in Universal Credit payments, and further extended the rise for another six months this March. Now that extension is set to expire, the uplift is due to end on Wednesday 6 October.

According to the Department of Work and Pensions, over 13,500 people were on Universal Credit in the Bay at the end of August.

Last week, Steve Darling (Barton with Watcombe) leader of the ruling Lib Dem-Independent coalition that runs Torbay Council penned a letter with deputy leader and cabinet member for finance Darren Cowell (Independent Group, Shiphay), urging Torbay’s Conservative MP Kevin Foster to lobby the government to reconsider its decision. Mr Foster is on the government payroll, as a parliamentary under-secretary at the home office.

The imminent cancellation of the Universal Credit uplift has been widely criticised, even by many of the Conservative MPs who are holding their annual conference this week in Manchester.

Critics argue the £20 reduction will force more pressure on the 5.8 million people on Universal Credit in the UK already affected by rising fuel and energy prices, the end of the furlough scheme last week and the economic consequences of covid. Homelessness charity Crisis warns the move could put 100,000 private renters at risk of homelessness.

In their letter, Cllr Darling and Cowell wrote: “Over the pandemic, the Universal Credit increase has been a lifeline. Both those in work and out of work have found this money invaluable in light of inflationary increases in living and rents rocketing in Torbay. 

“With the uncertainty around fuel costs in recent days, it could never be a worse time to withdraw this support to those most in need in our communities.

“Making the increase permanent is a quick and targeted way to direct support at local communities as we recover from the pandemic.”

Cllr Daring and Cowell argued that given 40 per cent of people on Universal Credit are already employed, ending the uplift would equate to a £1,000 pay cut for many of the lowest paid workers in Torbay and effectively withdraw £10 million from the Bay’s economy.

According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, a think tank, making the uplift permanent would cost taxpayers around £6 billion a year.

Speaking last month, transport secretary Grant Shapps defended the move, saying: “I think most people recognise that if it’s brought in for the pandemic, it’s going to end as we move back to people going back to work and more normal times.”

Appearing on the Andrew Marr on Sunday, prime minister Boris Johnson said it was ‘inappropriate’ to reverse his government’s decision. 

We contacted Torbay MP Kevin Foster for a response to the councillors’ letter, but he hasn’t yet replied.