By Dr Matthew Ashton
Regardless of how David Cameron and the Conservatives might try to dress up the donation row, there is no getting round the fact that this is a huge scandal for the party.
You have the treasurer of the Conservative party, Peter Cruddas, on tape talking to two undercover reporters and making some pretty serious claims about what they can get in return for donations. While it has to be made clear that no laws were broken because no money changed hands, anyone watching or listening to it would certainly get the impression that there was something wrong. Reading the transcript, there are at least four points that stick out as being problematic.
Firstly is the fact that Cruddas does seem to be making the argument that if you give money you'll get special access to the prime minister. Also that it has to be a pretty sizeable donation in order to get that access. Sums as large as £200,000 and £250,000 are bandied about. In a democracy like ours, even the suggestion that you could 'buy' access to elected officials in this way should set the alarm bells ringing. Giving money and being invited to a dinner where you're one person out of 300 is one thing. Being allowed one-on-one time with the leader of Britain is another.
Secondly, he seems to give the impression that the more money you give the greater the level of contact and that it could lead to ideas being fed back to the No 10 policy unit. This goes beyond just access to the prime minister. If it were true, that would be giving money in order to potentially influence government policy. Certainly he does claim that having this access would be 'awesome' for the reporters' company. While he doesn't state how exactly this would work, I presume that anyone giving £250,000 would want something more substantial than just a photo opportunity.
The third problem is the suggestion that the donors could have 'confidential' meetings with David Cameron. While obviously the prime minister does have to have certain meetings that aren't recorded and are 'off the record', they should never be with people who have given large sums of money to his party. When it comes to party funding, transparency has to be the name of the game.
Speaking as a voter, if a political figure meets with someone who's given their party a quarter of a million pounds I don't think it's unreasonable to want to know what they're talking about.
The final problem is that the reporters were masquerading as working for multi-millionaire foreign investors. Cameron has worked hard in the last few years to try to detoxify the Tory brand. This just brings back memories of the 'cash for questions' scandals of the 1990s. What's perhaps most surprising is that political figures are still being caught out by undercover reporters in this way.
You have to remember as well that this isn't an ex-minister or backbench MP, but the treasurer of the party. The excuse that he had only been in the job a short while doesn't hold water either. As treasurer he should have been properly briefed on the rules governing party funding, and what he could and couldn't, promise to potential donors. The question now is what briefing did he receive, and if he didn't, why not? However you look at it the level of incompetence on display is astonishing.
If you take at face value the argument that his claims were 'bluster', the implications are still worrying. Even if people aren't being sold access they're being sold the impression that they can buy access. Also it seriously calls Cameron's judgement into question for allowing him to be appointed in the first place. This is now the fourth major figure connected to the coalition who's resigned in the last 18 months.
What makes this doubly ironic is that David Cameron predicted all of this two years ago when he argued that lobbying and big money in politics could be a serious problem and 'the next big scandal waiting to happen'. Well, now it has, and in a lot of ways this is the chickens coming home to roost.
Last November the Kelly Report was published by the committee on standards in public life. They argued that money in politics from big donors was a bad thing and proposed that the state funding of political parties, along with greater transparency, would be one way of dealing with it. Because all three parties increasingly rely on 'big donors' in order to survive, the report was either jeered at or its major recommendations quietly ignored. As ever after a scandal, politicians will wring their hands and claim that 'something will be done', 'lessons have been learned' and 'this won't happen again'. However unless party funding is properly reformed scandals like this will keep happening.
There are four things that I think would help clean up party funding in this country. These include greater transparency and making it easier to investigate potential wrong-doing. Also the parties need to close all the current loopholes and create a cap on donations to prevent the super-rich giving huge sums. Otherwise we run the risk of a political system that's funded by a handful of multi-millionaires and billionaires.
Distrust of politicians is already at an all-time high. Scandals like this just further undermine our democracy.
Dr Matthew Ashton is a politics lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. Visit his blog.