Access to the top is a constant quest and an abiding flaw in UK politics

A new book on Mohamed Amersi shows little has changed since the 'cash-for-questions' issue was first exposed 30 years ago

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They may be trailing in the polls by 20 points and if the forecasts are correct, facing electoral decimation but the Tories still know how to rake in the millions.

In the third quarter of last year, the party collected £16 million ($20.3 million) in donations, three times as much as Labour. The recent gala night added to the coffers. Held at the Old War Office hotel, newly developed by the Hinduja brothers in Whitehall, the event had donors paying £25,000 for a private dinner with Jeremy Hunt, the Chancellor – this in the run-up to his annual budget speech.

A signed photo of the Cabinet went for £115,000 but again, the lot included the work being personally presented by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak – so it was hard to discern what was more valuable, the group portrait or a cosy chat with the top man.

Mr Sunak, Home Secretary James Cleverly, Foreign Secretary David Cameron and Defence Secretary Grant Shapps were all in attendance. One guest at the £15,000 a table dinner, who created a splash, was medical cannabis, financial services and telecoms billionaire Bassim Haidar. The 52-year-old Nigerian Lebanese (he was born in Nigeria to Lebanese parents) arrived in a personalised Rolls-Royce. Haidar, who has a fleet of yachts, has said his lavish lifestyle resembles that of the movie, The Wolf of Wall Street.

Haidar is becoming increasingly well-known in senior Tory circles. In 2023, he gave more than £320,000 to the party, £75,000 to failed London mayoral candidate Moz Hossain and £10,000 worth of advertising to Lee Anderson, the recently suspended former Tory MP.

One of the lots was a five-night stay for 10 people at his fully staffed, luxury beach party villa in Turks and Caicos. “The Villa Bash” as the break was described, sold for £50,000.

It is a measure of its worth, that the Tories persist with the annual fund-raiser. They know the occasion will attract negative publicity, be criticised for its sheer tackiness, and the stark comparison will be made between the bash and the difficulties many families face in just getting by, but they are not bothered – it brings in too much money to be scrapped.

The only concession they have made is that it used to be called the Black and White Ball, now it is the Winter Party.

There is no disguising its true purpose nor is there little attempt to hide what is really on offer: Access to government ministers and party leaders.

That is what Haidar has acquired – to what end is not clear. He is merely the latest in a long line of donors to use their fortune to buy their way into the corridors of power.

Reading Cuckooland, the new book from investigative journalist, Tom Burgis, the degree to which the wealthy can gain entry behind what are otherwise firmly closed doors is laid bare.

Subtitled “where the rich own the truth”, the entertaining narrative covers oligarchs and the vast sums of money flowing between Soviets and the West’s ruling elites. Really, it tends to focus on one person, multimillionaire and Tory donor, Mohamed Amersi and his efforts to inveigle himself into high society.

Central to Mr Amersi’s cause is the Tories’ former co-chairman Sir Ben Elliot, nephew of Queen Camilla. Mr Elliot charged Mr Amersi £15,000 a year for highest-tier membership of his upmarket concierge company, Quintessentially. Through Mr Elliot, Mr Amersi was able to meet King Charles, then the Prince of Wales, and curry favour with him by donating to his charities. Likewise, Mr Elliot encouraged him to give generously to the Conservatives.

It is a colourful account, punctuated by threats from Mr Amersi to prevent the book from being published, but nevertheless disturbing and depressing. Mr Amersi calls the service Mr Elliot and his firm provide, “access capitalism”.

Says Mr Amersi: “You get access, you get invitations; you get privileged relationships if you are part of the set-up, and where you are financially making a contribution to be part of that set-up.”

This year is the 30th anniversary of the “cash-for-questions” affair in which Mohamed Al-Fayed admitted to bribing two Tory MPs to table Parliamentary questions on his behalf. The pair, Neil Hamilton and Tim Smith, were literally paid cash in brown envelopes by the Harrods tycoon.

So damaging were the revelations in 1994 that John Major, Tory Prime Minister at the time, appointed a judicial committee to examine standards of public life. The subsequent Nolan Committee, chaired by Lord Nolan, came up with the “Seven Principles of Public Life”. They are enshrined in codes of conduct across all the UK public sector.

Given the frequency of similar scandals since, it would also appear that nothing has changed.

At the time there was genuine shock at the behaviour of the MPs. But as the decades pass, you are left wondering whether they reached a new low or if all Fayed was doing was reflecting what had always been. Given the frequency of similar scandals since, it would also appear that nothing has changed. Nolan did not make a blind bit of difference. Codes of conduct or not, words are one thing, actual deeds are quite another.

Certainly, that is the feeling. Access capitalism is very much alive and kicking – witness the Winter Party.

To be fair, it does not only apply to the Tories. Labour, too, sells places at dinners where senior party figures are guaranteed to be present. Its annual conference has long been regarded as a must for any company or person wanting to buy in to the highest circles.

A stand at the trade exhibition, sponsorship of the delegates’ carrier bags or lanyards, a table at a dinner – these and more can an all be yours, for a price. As for the trade unions, they are on a different level – historically enjoying influence in return for millions.

More than ever, it cannot be allowed to continue. One clean solution that would do away with a substantial amount of the unseemliness would be the state funding of political parties. The counterargument is that this would not represent proper use of taxpayers’ money. But it would: Cuckooland and the auction list at the Winter Party say so.

Published: March 05, 2024, 2:58 PM