Inside the elite Tory fundraising machine

Strikingly, the Conservative Party’s lists of major donors look like a representative cross-section of each year’s ‘Rich List’ . Today, that means more money from those with extensive overseas business interests (typically dual-nationality citizens), more money from the investment and wealth management sectors (especially hedge funds), and less money from traditional manufacturing and export-based industries.

In recent years, it has also meant more donations from those championing Brexit. In the Leaders’ Group – the most expensive of the Tory donors’ clubs – export-oriented members from the Cameron years, like Remain-backing paper exporter Ranjit Baxi, have fallen away. A fresh intake of hedge-fund managers has replaced them.

What do donors get out of it all? It is a good question, with several possible answers: philanthropy, partisanship, patriotism, networking, or even, in some cases, self-advancement. Others want to promote a political climate conducive to their business interests – and that probably does little harm to the Conservative Party, as it cements the ‘party of business’ reputation.

Loyalty not required

Donors don’t have to be party members. That’s good for the parties in one way: they can easily tap new sources of cash without bureaucracy or commitment. The flipside is that donors can be fickle: there is nothing to stop them from giving to other parties as well.

For instance, two members of the premier Tory donor club, the Leader’s Group, have also donated to the Brexit Party this year – £3.2 million from aeronautics CEO Christopher Harborne and £200,000 from City trader George Farmer, the son of former Tory treasurer Lord Farmer. For rank-and-file party members, this kind of support for another party would be grounds for swift expulsion. But party donors who have not paid for membership are not bound by these rules.

Recent months have seen pro-European former Tory donors decamping to the Liberal Democrats. Tim Sainsbury, a former Tory MP and trade minister under Margaret Thatcher, has made a donation to the Lib Dems that the party called “substantial”. Electoral Commission filings also show an attempted donation by Laidlaw Estates UK Ltd, a company controlled by Monaco-based millionaire Lord (Irvine) Laidlaw, the former Conservative peer who quit the Lords over his tax status. Laidlaw tried to donate £100,000 to the Lib Dems earlier this year. However, the donation is labelled as being from an “impermissible donor”, and marked as having been “returned for political reasons”. Laidlaw had previously given £3 million to the Conservative Party, including £25,000 to Boris Johnson’s 2008 mayoral campaign.

Not the widow’s mite

What do you do when you have a lot of demand for your product – an iPhone, say, or a pair of headphones – and some people are ready (or able) to pay more than others for that product? What many companies do is to sell differently priced versions of the same product, offering slightly different experiences. This is called a ‘discriminating monopoly’ (or ‘versioning’ in tech circles), and the Conservative Party operates one in its donor clubs.

Here, the ‘product’ is the experience of being in a donor club – the sheer success of Conservative fundraising in recent years shows a clear, popular appetite to be part of a Tory donor club.

The party advertises eight very differently priced donor clubs, pitched at different audiences, with different rewards promised in exchange for your money.

For £300 a year you can be a member of the entry-level Fastrack: you’ll probably be under 40 and you’ll be invited to “Members-only formal discussions, panel events and informal drinks receptions, often hosted by key figures in politics, business, industry, the arts and beyond.”

Climb higher and, if you stump up £5,000 a year, you can be part of The Front Bench Club and get to “meet and debate with MPs at a series of political lunches and receptions”.

Right at the top of the Tory tree, though, is The Leader’s Group. For a minimum of £50,000 a year you “are invited to join the Leader and other senior figures from the Conservative Party at dinners, post-PMQ lunches, drinks receptions, election result events and important campaign launches”.

The versioning of Tory donor clubs provides supporters with a vast range of disposable incomes the opportunity to interact with the party and with each other, while reserving the most desirable rewards to those who pay most. It has another important function, though: it acts as a ladder that helps the party move donors up to higher levels of giving.

Very few complete strangers turn up at a party headquarters out of the blue saying, “Let me give you half a million pounds.” Donors tend to have been wooed and cultivated for years. Typically, they will have gone along to a drinks party, perhaps held by their local party. Then they’ll be tapped to come to an intimate local party dinner with a VIP guest, who will talk them into making a four-figure donation to the constituency association. Then one of the people there will invite them to a reception held by one of the more junior donor groups. Then they’ll join that club, as a semi-regular attendee, and after a while, they may move up the ladder to another donor club. At each step, their donations will increase, leaving the party a trail of money over the years.

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