Next weeks blog is early because of topicality and grandchildren. It is probably a failed attempt at transforming raw anger into meaningful prose.
Both the Financial Times and Times have good accounts of what the former calls Boris Johnson’s money network, following earlier analysis in Open Democracy. (See Peter Geoghegan’s book Democracy for Sale in particular.) I have talked before about the ‘Leaders Group’, a longstanding club for Tory donors who enjoy monthly lunches with ministers, but there is also an even more select ‘Advisory Board’. This, according to the Times, “granted privileged access to the prime minister, ministers and advisers at the top of government.”
Before linking this to policy over Covid, it is important that we are clear about what is going on here. The official line is that this is just a group of people with money helping the Conservative cause. But as all the accounts above make perfectly clear, that is the half-truth that allows the myth of that official line to persist. What those who donate large sums are doing here is not just supporting the Conservative cause, but also buying direct access (and therefore inevitably influence) with whichever minister they choose.
Equally others might ask what is new here. The CEOs who run our large companies have always had the ability to contact ministers when they needed to. I have in the past talked about institutionalised links between finance and the Treasury, which gives banks in particular direct access to key areas of government decision making. But that is access based on power, not money. Who does and doesn’t have power matters hugely of course, but it is not what is going on with Johnson’s money networks.
What is giving those who are part of that network unrivalled access to ministers and the Prime Minister is money, pure and simple. Those with money may also be powerful, but their access through the leaders group and the Advisory board is based on financial donations to the Conservative party. Once again, that individuals have been able in the past to use party donations to buy influence is not new. What is new is its institutionalisation, which has happened gradually over the last decade and is now under Boris Johnson, it seems, complete.
It is no surprise that Johnson has given priority to completing his money network. He himself is not that wealthy compared to some other Conservative ministers and is also hopeless with money: he needs a lot of it and hates raising it. But he also knows the Conservative party today needs to spend so much more than its rivals because its message is so often dishonest (see here for a clear example). This is what gives donors all the leverage they need with Conservative ministers.
This is partly why I have over the past few years described the UK under the Conservatives, and the US under Trump, as an elected plutocracy - government by the wealthy, for the wealthy. Once access and influence within a governing political party becomes institutionalised to the extent that it now is in the Conservative party, then it becomes legitimate to talk about an institutionalised plutocracy. That does not mean that those with money always have the final say - normal politics still functions to a degree - but critically it becomes almost impossible for us to say how big an influence those within the money network do have on government decisions. In normal democracies we would describe a plutocracy by another, equally valid, name: corruption.
Nor is this corruption confined to the party leader and his ministers. Many Conservative MPs are now in the market for becoming paid lobbyists for particular firms wanting favours from the government, as Open Democracy reports. Paterson was not one bad apple, but part of an increasing pattern in this Conservative party.