There is a sense of inevitability about the controversy surrounding Ben Elliot, co-chairman of the Conservative Party and nephew of Camilla, Prince Charles's wife.
He is at the centre of three sets of claims: one, that he furnished clients of his Quintessentially concierge company with access to Prince Charles in return for cash; two, that he set up a secret club of high-roller Tory donors, called the Advisory Board, to channel payments to the party in exchange for meetings with senior ministers; three, that his company sold PCR and antibody tests to wealthy clients at a time when the UK government was struggling to obtain them.
All three show what Elliot does brilliantly: smoothing the paths of the super-rich, making connections and solving difficulties, at a price.
Elliot, 45, is hugely well-connected. An Old Etonian, he is a nephew of the Duchess of Cornwall and therefore, by marriage, Prince Charles. His circle of close friends includes Tom Parker Bowles, Camilla’s son, princes William and Harry, and Zac and Ben Goldsmith. Tall, smooth and urbane, he is married to Mary-Clare, daughter of the musician Steve Winwood.
Interesting as the personal details are, it is his business acumen that has propelled him to riches and attention. He started out as a nightclub host, running venues at the top end of the market for London’s glitterati. That’s when I first became aware of him, as a name in that crazy, late ‘90s fin de siècle. That led to putting on extravagant parties for the same, ultra-glamorous set. Whatever they desired, Elliot said they could consider it done, and it usually was.
That evolved into a wider enterprise, still catering to the whims of the “0.01” as he described them, but laying on private planes, limousines, yachts, hotels, staff – in short, helping them secure virtually anything they wanted.
This was not unique – others were doing the same – although Elliot shone as being especially driven and persuasive. Relentless, too. He was also brilliant at ramping up his own publicity and ubiquity – my inbox would groan with emails and missives from him and his agency. Elliot placed Quintessentially at the heart of London’s social scene and took the firm overseas, cashing in on the explosion in demand for luxury and service.
The problematic entwining of private and public
The problem comes when that spills over into politics and public life. He may be “Mr Access All Areas”, but that access arguably should not include members of royalty or the Cabinet. Blurring private with public service can be dangerous. Mix those who have money with those who have little, charities and political parties. But what the latter may lack in cash they have another asset: power.
Of the rows currently engulfing Elliot, the most telling are those concerning the Advisory Board and the PCR tests. The first says a lot about his methods, how he likes to create tiers of importance – so at Quintessentially, £15,000 ($20,911) a year buys elite membership with extra benefits and networking opportunities. The second raises questions about his suitability for high office, that as co-chair of the party of government he should have been more sensitive to public perception and thought twice about peddling Covid tests his Tory colleagues were unable to secure.
Making introductions to Prince Charles highlights what occurs when a well-meaning member of royalty is trying to raise finance for charitable projects. Again, it illustrates what can happen when organisations with limited means, charities, are aligned with individuals contained in Elliot’s contacts book, who have plenty.
In the UK, in the absence of state funding for political parties, their financial well-being comes down to their own devices. For Labour, that means tapping the trade unions and, infrequently, people and businesses; for the Tories, that equates to constantly pumping people and businesses.
There are regulations, of course, and they have been tightened. Nevertheless, our public life is forever being dogged by scandals concerning “access capitalism”. Their monikers form a roll-call of shame, among them “cash for questions”, “sleaze”, “cash for honours”, “chumocracy”.
Despite the rules, there are grey areas. I’ve been asked to help secure a knighthood for a well-known tycoon – their opening offer was £40,000. I declined, and by the way, he never did get it and later went to jail. I’ve had someone enquire as to the best way to obtain a peerage.
This was in the Tony Blair era, and he was worried in case he would have to pin his colours to Labour. More recently, a billionaire tax exile wanted to be a “Sir” – I pointed out that his tax status would count against him. He insisted, as they frequently do, “it’s not for me, you understand, but for my wife, she deserves to be called ‘Lady'”.
Path to a knighthood? Pave Downing Street with gold
In every case, there is one quick way: give generously to the party occupying Number 10. You must pay your dues, possibly do some genuine philanthropy if you don’t already, make yourself known to the hierarchy, and donate.
There are other routes to the powerful. Buy items at the party conferences – they’re all for sale – from the lanyards round the necks of delegates, to the carrier bags for their booklets, to receptions, to exclusive lounges where senior figures are guaranteed to be present, to exhibition stands with a promise that the leader will “walkabout” and chat with you and be photographed, to places at gala dinners. They’re all yours, if you pay.
In theory, it’s above board. But the sotto voce line is that the party will be extremely “appreciative”, that the leadership will be “aware” of your contribution.
A venal injustice
Likewise, the fund-raising bash. Elliot, co-chairman only since 2019, has had to apologise to Tory MPs once already for seating the housing secretary, Robert Jenrick, next to property developer and party donor Richard Desmond at a £900-a-head evening at London’s Savoy hotel.
Desmond wanted Jenrick to agree to a 1,500-home development in Westferry, east London, and the billionaire duly raised the issue with him over the dinner. Afterwards, Jenrick exchanged texts with the former newspaper proprietor and eventually gave the project the go-ahead.
Subsequently, when the episode became known, Jenrick denied he had inappropriately overruled official advice to reject the scheme as a favour to Desmond. The minister maintained he acted properly throughout, did not know he would be seated alongside Desmond, told him it was not the right forum to be discussing his plans, and that he was not unduly influenced – even though Desmond’s proposal contained fewer affordable homes than a previous scheme.
It was a close call for Jenrick. Angry Tory MPs tore a strip off Elliot. Now this. Elliot is unlikely to budge, say Tory insiders. “No Tory wants the fuss of insisting he should go, and besides, he has brought in zillions for the party,” one said.
As long as he remains in situ, don’t be surprised if there is more of the same.