In my days as Tory party chairman, donor-gate could never have happened
The most worrying thing about the sorry tale of the deeply unattractive ex-Tory co-treasurer Peter Cruddas is that it is yet another example of a failure by the Conservative leadership to think things through, or to have any regard for the way in which things were managed in the past.
As a former chairman of the Conservative Party who was also a minister under Margaret Thatcher, I was always fully aware that party business and government business should not be mixed.
There is a distinction between the roles and responsibilities of David Cameron as Prime Minister and those of Mr David Cameron as the leader of a political party. Similarly there is an important distinction between the official residence of the Prime Minister at No 10 Downing Street and the Tory Party’s head office.
Careless: The Peter Cruddas saga is another example of how the Conservative leadership has failed to think things through
But these are distinctions that neither Mr Cameron, nor the unfortunate Mr Cruddas, seems to have understood.
Mr Cruddas’s disclosures to undercover reporters - which suggested that donors who contributed vast sums to the Tory Party could not only gain access to the Prime Minister in Downing Street, but also access to the machinery of government at No 10 - show just how intertwined party and government business have become.
Perhaps we should forgive Mr Cameron on the grounds of inexperience.
But the fact is that this is not the first time he has blurred the line between party business and the affairs of government.
While leader of the Opposition, Mr Cameron was forced to apologise after allowing the Tory Party’s deputy treasurer Andrew Feldman - who had no political experience but happened to be his best friend at Oxford University - to hold dinners for major donors in his office in the House of Commons, in breach of Parliamentary rules.
In my book, anyone may be forgiven for making a mistake, but not for making the same mistake twice.
The Tory leadership has tried to dismiss Mr Cruddas’s comments as bluster, but it is becoming increasingly clear that he was authorised to sell invitations to dinner at Downing Street.
When I was chairman of the Conservative Party, scandals like those that have plagued the Government simply didn't happen
This begs the question of who gave him the authority to do so. Was it that same best friend of Mr Cameron - now elevated to joint Party Chairman and given the title of Lord Feldman? Was it the Prime Minister himself? Or was it just another muddle?
The unsavoury nature of these disclosures suggest a Conservative party leadership which is in thrall to the very rich, while dismissive of its traditional grass roots supporters. They also suggest a disdain for past practice that we had come to associate with the Blair years of sofa government, with policy decisions made on the hoof by a close cabal of like-minded advisors.
Scandals such as this did not happen in the past. Not just because we did not have to face the muddles and bickering of coalition government. Nor because the Conservative politicians of my day were any cleverer than our successors, but because we paid more attention to the tried and tested structures we had inherited whether in the Government or in the Party.
Of course we changed those structures where necessary, but we did not simply ignore them. When I became party chairman, I inherited a professional organisation and a finely-tuned infrastructure based at Central Office which was devoted to maintaining and increasing party membership.
The Treasurer, Alistair McAlpine, reported not to me but to the Leader of the Party, Margaret Thatcher, and he had the Conservative Board of Finance to assist him.
That board was not composed of rich spivs but retired senior Army officers who were in tune with local agents and activists and acted with decency and honour. The emphasis was on persuading huge numbers of activists all over the country to contribute comparatively small sums of money.
Donors were vetted thoroughly by the Finance Board. In my three years as chairman, Alistair McAlpine only ever consulted me once about his role. On that occasion he laid on my desk a cheque for £100,000 (a very large sum in those days) and said: ‘What should I do with that?’ I saw the signature on it and replied: ‘Send it back. Today. First Class.’
It was not very long after that the would-be donor went to jail.
Structural differences: Alistair McAlpine reported not to me but to Margaret Thatcher
All that has changed today. The structure that kept fund-raising on the straight and narrow no longer exists.
It always surprises me, though, that substantial and reputable business men believe that in order to make their concerns known to government these days, they have to make substantial contributions to the Conservative Party.
In my time as Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, my office door was always open to business leaders, and there was no admission charge of a donation to party funds. And when those business leaders did come to see me, I took good care to ensure that my private secretary was there to record our discussions. Of course I also met business people outside, often at Party gatherings or social occasions.
Errors: Recent decisions smack of thoughtlessness from David Cameron
Curiously, I think that the only time I arranged a dinner at my London flat was while I was Secretary of State for Employment. That was with the leader of a trades union, at his request, because he did not wish his TUC colleagues to know that we had met.
The trouble is that today, these tried and tested methods have been done away with. And the results are there for all to see. For it is not just the debacle of party donations that reflect Mr Cameron’s method of governance.
Time and again we have had decisions that smack of thoughtlessness and impetuosity - decisions that come back to bedevil him because they have not been subject to critical analysis.
The most glaring example is his appointment of the disgraced former editor of the News of the World Andy Coulson as his communications director.
And in office, instead of Blair’s sofa government, he has what has become known as the Quad - the foursome of the Prime Minister, his Deputy Nick Clegg, the Chancellor George Osborne and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury Secretary Danny Alexander - which meets twice daily to decide policy over the heads of the Cabinet. (I understand that Lord Feldman is also a regular at the meetings.)
More from Norman Tebbit for the Daily Mail...
Under its guidance, the Government has blundered into damaging rows over the privatisation of the Forestry Commission woodlands, the proposed high speed train route, child benefit rules, new planning procedures and now the so-called Pasty Tax and conflicting advice on whether motorists should stock up on petrol in case of a fuel lorry driver strike.
In every case it seems that there was no proper collective discussion among ministers, nor it appears were most of the proposals ever properly thrashed through with officials in the relevant Departments.
Perhaps some good might come out of this shambles.
For a start I hope that no one at Westminster will delude themselves into thinking that the smart way to avoid the scandals and mud-slinging associated with raising the money essential to enable political parties to function would be to ask the taxpayer to cough up through the tax system.
For its part, Labour should accept that being financed by the big powerful and greedy unions is a major handicap for them.
Bungles: The Government has blundered into damaging rows that has threatened its credibility
Hopefully, that would make it possible for the parties to agree on a limit on the size of donations by individuals or businesses.
If they are wise it would be relatively low, which would give all parties an incentive to rebuild their grassroots membership and raise money at constituency level.
The truth is that elections have become far too expensive in recent years and it is time for a limit, with less national advertising, less polling, fewer focus groups, less PR spending and rather more grown up politics at local level.
It would be a pity if the party leaders fail to learn from experience. It is time to remember the advice of Labour’s Denis Healey: ‘When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.’
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