IMPACT Article of the Month
Few books have managed to create such a stir before they have even been published. The newspaper serialisation of Michael Ashcroft’s unauthorised biography of the Prime Minister, Call Me Dave, has been quite the attention-grabber. And no wonder.
Naturally, almost all of the attention of the media and the public has been centred on the book’s most shocking, salacious allegation. This is a rumour relating to the precise nature of David Cameron’s relationship with the head of a dead pig during his time as an undergraduate at Oxford University.
In the understandable stampede to gawp and gasp and giggle at Ashcroft’s extraordinary, sordid claim, another more consequential detail (for the health of our democracy at least) has been somewhat overlooked.
In the preface to Call Me Dave, Ashcroft writes of his frustration in the aftermath of the 2010 UK General Election at not being offered a more prestigious, powerful role in the new Conservative-led government than junior whip at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
‘After putting my neck on the line for nearly 10 years – both as party treasurer under William Hague and as deputy chairman – and after ploughing some £8m into the party, I regarded this as a declinable offer,’ he wrote. ‘It would have been better had Cameron offered me nothing at all.’
For around a decade, not only was Ashcroft a key figure in the organisational and political hierarchy of the Conservative Party machine, he was also one of the Tories’ biggest and most well-connected donors. As Ashcroft highlights, he donated over £8 million of his own money into party coffers during the lean years of the 2000s – money which ultimately helped propel Cameron into Downing Street.
When Ashcroft writes that ‘after ploughing some £8m into the party, I regarded this as a declinable offer’, the inference is unequivocal: he expected to buy a high-profile, high-status government job by donating to a political party. In exchange for cash, he expected to be parachuted into power, without any relevant experience or qualifications. He did not merely seek to influence public policy with his wealth; he sought to buy his way into government.
Of course, things did not quite turn out that way. Or did they? Back in 2000, then-Tory leader William Hague successfully managed to get Ashcroft ennobled (a move which no doubt facilitated future deliveries of massive donations to Conservative HQ). Like many Members of the House of Lords, Ashcroft owed his position of privilege and power to this history of self-interested financial largesse.
Moreover, the Tories’ repeated refusal to reform the tax system so as to close the so-called ‘non-dom’ status loophole makes perfect sense in light of the fact that Ashcroft himself benefitted, to the tune of millions, from this morally dubious arrangement.
Earlier this year, academics at Cameron’s alma mater published authoritative research into the alleged link between donations to political parties and appointments to the House of Lords. Their study – Is There a Market for Peerages? Can Donations Buy You a British Peerage? A Study in the Link Between Party Political Funding and Peerage Nominations, 2005-14 – although offering no ‘cast-iron proof that any peerages have been sold’, concluded that there is a clear and ‘significant’ statistical ‘relationship between donations and nominations’ for peerages.
On average, researchers found that Conservatives in the Lords had donated £220,000, Liberal Democrats £333,000, and Labour peers £464,000. If peerages are in fact up for sale, this would be the ‘price’ for each party respectively.
The most recent honours list was full to the brim with characters similar to Ashcroft. Countless former and current donors and fundraisers for all three main British political parties took their places among the Lords and Ladies of Westminster. The UK’s Upper House is where political careers go to die and millionaire donors go to influence governments.
Our democracy is up for sale to the highest bidder. Ashcroft’s new book is much more, therefore, than an apparent exposition of the revolting, debased antics of the UK’s upper classes. It is also a clear and unambiguous admission of the corruption at the heart of Westminster politics, where money buys power and prestige.
We will likely never know whether the story of the Prime Minister and the pig is really true. But Ashcroft has reminded us of one thing we can say for certain: Westminster stinks.