By a Newsnet reporter
In scenes reminiscent of the sleaze allegations which dogged the last Conservative government under John Major, the Tories last night found themselves mired in a controversy about alleged cash for access to senior Conservative politicians. Conservative co-treasurer Peter Cruddas has resigned after the Sunday Times alleged that he had offered undercover reporters posing as businessmen access to David Cameron or George Osborne in return for a substantial donation to the party’s coffers. Mr Cruddas also revealed the insulting manner in which the Prime Minister refers to Scotland’s First Minister in private.
Mr Cruddas, who owns an online trading company, was appointed as co-treasurer of the Conservative party in June 2011. One of his main responsibilities was fund raising for the party.
The aspect of Mr Cruddas’ alleged statement most concerning to observers is that he apparently promised potential donors that they could have influence in policy making. The Sunday Times alleges that Mr Cruddas was secretly videoed telling their undercover reporters:
“Two hundred grand to 250 is Premier League… what you would get is, when we talk about your donations the first thing we want to do is get you at the Cameron/Osborne dinners.
“You do really pick up a lot of information and when you see the Prime Minister, you’re seeing David Cameron, not the Prime Minister.
“But within that room everything is confidential – you can ask him practically any question you want.
“If you’re unhappy about something, we will listen to you and put it into the policy committee at Number 10 – we feed all feedback to the policy committee.”
He added: “In fact, some of our bigger donors have been for dinner in No 10 Downing Street, in the Prime Minister’s private apartment, with Samantha [Cameron]. They could ask the prime minister anything they liked about issues affecting their business …
“Things could open up for you, but you need to go in with a bit of you know … it’s no use scratching about with 10 grand … Minimum, minimum 100 grand but you need to go in with at least 200.
“It will be awesome for your business.”
When the reporters told Mr Cruddas that they wanted to raise the possibility with the Prime Minister of an overseas company buying Royal Mail, Mr Cruddas is alleged to have replied:
“Spot on … You could ask him about that. That would be a very good thing.”
The Times also alleged that Mr Cruddas, who has given £1.2m to the party, said he had used his own access to the Prime Minister to object to the Tobin tax on financial transactions and told the reporters: “He said don’t even worry about it …”
In news which will prove disastrous for Ruth Davidson’s attempted relaunching and rebranding of the Conservatives at their Scottish conference this weekend, Mr Cruddas also told the Times undercover reporters that he had discussed Scottish independence with Mr Cameron. Mr Cruddas said that they had jokingly described Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond as “the mad Scotsman”.
The Times says its reporters were introduced to Mr Cruddas via Sarah Southern. Ms Southern was formerly employed as an aide to David Cameron but now works independently as a lobbyist. Ms Southern was very close to Mr Cameron and his family during her period of employment in the Prime Minister’s office, the Times reports that Ms Southern boasted that on General Election day in 2010, Mr Cameron entrusted her to look after his then heavily pregnant wife.
The Times claims that for a monthly fee of £15,000 a month, Ms Southern promised to introduce their undercover reporters senior figures in the Conservative party, including Mr Cameron, and offered to gather intelligence on party policy.
In the following weeks Ms Southern invited the undercover reporters to exclusive donor lunches and dinners with eight ministers including Theresa May, the home secretary, Philip Hammond, the defence secretary, Eric Pickles, the communities secretary, and Michael Gove, the education secretary. Ms Southern also promised to arrange a meeting with Mr Cameron.
In a resignation statement hurriedly issued last night, Mr Cruddas said: “I only took up the post of principal Treasurer of the Party at the beginning of the month and was keen to meet anyone potentially interested in donating.
“As a result, and without consulting any politicians or senior officials in the party, I had an initial conversation. No further action was taken by the party.
“However, I deeply regret any impression of impropriety arising from my bluster in that conversation. Clearly there is no question of donors being able to influence policy or gain undue access to politicians.
“Specifically, it was categorically not the case that I could offer, or that David Cameron would consider, any access as a result of a donation. Similarly, I have never knowingly even met anyone from the number ten policy unit. But in order to make that clear beyond doubt, I have regrettably decided to resign with immediate effect.”
The Conservative Party said it would investigate the allegation but strongly denied accepting or considering any such donation.
A Conservative Party spokesman said: “No donation was ever accepted or even formally considered by the Conservative Party.
“All donations to the Conservative Party have to comply with the requirements of electoral law. These are strictly enforced by our compliance department.”
The allegations have overshadowed Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson’s attempt to relaunch and rebrand her party at this weekend’s Scottish Conservative conference by reminding voters of some of the more unpleasant aspects of the last Conservative government, and the apparent disdain with which the highest levels of the party treat the Scottish Government.