One in 10 Conservative peers are big donors to the party, giving almost £50m in total, new analysis shows, amid controversy over more financial backers believed to have been put forward on Boris Johnson’s resignation honours list.
Rowena Mason www.theguardian.com
After speculation about more donors due to get peerages within the coming weeks, figures compiled by the Guardian show 27 out of the party’s 274 peers have given more than £100,000 to the Conservatives.
The rate of donors being given peerages appears to have picked up over the last six years, during the tenures of Theresa May and Boris Johnson.
The new year honours list giving out knighthoods and damehoods is due to be published on Friday, with Rishi Sunak under pressure to clean up politics by cutting out big donors. Last year under Johnson, David Winton Harding, a billionaire hedge fund manager who had given £1.5m to the Tories, was given a knighthood.
During his three years in power, Johnson submitted the names of six major donors for peerages, including three financiers: Sir Michael Hintze, who has given £4.5m to the Conservatives; Michael Spencer, who together with his company has given about £7m; and Peter Cruddas, who has donated £3.4m.
At least two more donors – David Ross, the Carphone Warehouse founder who arranged Johnson’s £15,000 holiday in Mustique in 2020, and Stuart Marks, a technology entrepreneur – have been tipped for a peerages in his resignation honours list. The list has been expected for some time, but it appears to have been held up during the vetting process, with Sunak facing calls from Labour to block it.
There has also been a growing trend of big donor peers being given jobs as ministers. Most recently, Liz Truss requested a peerage for Dominic Johnson, a former party vice-chairman who has given more than £300,000 and was the business partner of her then business secretary, Jacob Rees-Mogg. He was subsequently appointed as a trade minister, a job he then retained under Rishi Sunak.
At least six big donor peers have been given government jobs in the last decade, including two schools ministers (Theodore Agnew and John Nash), a Scotland Office minister (Malcolm Offord) and a business minister (Jonathan Marland). Dolar Popat served as a government whip.
The 274 peers who take the Conservative whip include those on a leave of absence but intending to return. However, the total does not include two more major donors put forward for peerages by David Cameron – James Lupton and Jitesh Gadhia, who are now non-affliated but often vote with the party bloc.
Three more donors given peerages by the Tories since records on party funding began in 2001 – Robert Edmiston, Michael Ashcroft and Irvine Laidlaw – have retired, meaning they still get to keep their titles without sitting in the House of Lords. In total, at least 40 Conservative donors have been put forward for peerages since John Major’s time in office.
The Conservatives have long argued that peerages to donors are given on the basis of their other achievements including business successes and charity work. A Conservative party spokesperson said: “Peerages are for contributions to civic life and also a willingness to further contribute to public life as a legislator in the second chamber.
“It is wrong to criticise individuals being honoured just because they happen to have supported or donated to a political party. Donations should be transparent, but that is not an excuse to knock people for broader philanthropy, enterprise and public service. Volunteering and supporting a political party is part of our civic democracy.”
House of Lords appointments commission guidance says the key criteria when considering the vetting of political donors put forward for peerage is their other work for the party.
“The overarching consideration for commission members should be whether the level of donation is matched by other work done for or on behalf of the party. In other words, would this be a credible nomination even if donations had not been made?” the guidance says.
Research in 2015 by the University of Oxford academics showed that statistically it could be said that the “relationship between donations and nominations [for peerages] has been found to be significant”.
Duncan Hames, the policy director of Transparency International UK, said: “We are of the view that political party leaders shouldn’t be nominating and effectively appointing members of the House of Lords. Their need to raise funds for their political campaigns creates a serious risk of corruption when they are also in a position to be able to offer that kind of patronage.
“We have a House of Lords that is already full and we also have a process by which people can be chosen because of their expertise and merit via a House of Lords appointment commission. There is no need to continue this arrangement which is bringing British politics into disrepute.”
Hames highlighted the resignation honours lists of Cameron and May, plus expected ones from Johnson and potentially Truss, as sources of nominations of major donors. “Resignation honours are not a constitutional obligation. It is an excess that has been exploited in recent years and the faster we turn over prime ministers, the more often it happens,” he said.
With increasing scrutiny of the House of Lords, particularly in light of the investigations into the Tory peer Michelle Mone, Labour has made clear it would abolish it and is consulting on replacing it with an elected second chamber. The party has also put forward donors for peerages but Keir Starmer, the party leader, has said Labour would get rid of the “indefensible” second chamber if he were in charge.
Jess Garland, the director of policy and research for the Electoral Reform Society, said it was “questionable that peers who are personally appointed by the prime minister are more independent and less partisan than someone elected by the public”.
She said: “Political patronage does not create independence of thought and expertise, and this is especially true when a vast number of appointees are party donors and friends of the prime minister of the day. It is the structures and culture of the chamber that matter most and these can be built into an elected upper house.
“For instance, a proportional electoral system, such as the single transferable vote (STV) already in use in Scotland and Ireland, would encourage a diverse range of representatives, more independents and a greater range of parties represented. An elected chamber can also be an expert and independent body and we can rely on the public to make those choices rather than departing prime ministers.”
Anneliese Dodds, the Labour party chair, said Sunak had “delivered sleaze, scandal and cronyism”.
“He is too weak to stand up to the energy companies, his home secretary or his backbenchers. Does anyone truly believe he can stand up to those who bankroll his party?” she said. “Labour will replace the unelected House of Lords with a democratically elected second chamber to restore trust in public office and end the revolving door between Conservative donors and positions of power once and for all.”