Conservative Party chairman Oliver Dowden defended donors who pay £50,000 to be part of the ‘Leader’s Group’, enjoying secretive meals with the Prime Minister and the Cabinet
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Billionaires pay vast sums to dine in secret with Boris Johnson out of “civic duty”, the Tory fundraising chief declared today.
Oliver Dowden made the eyebrow-raising claim as he sought to explain why captains of industry choose to join the ‘Leader’s Group’ for £50,000.
The club, which used to be publicly declared but has been scrubbed from the Tories’ website in recent years, allows top donors to meet the PM with no civil servants and no notes.
There is even reportedly an ‘Advisory Board’ for donors who give more than £250,000.
Yet party chairman Mr Dowden today brushed off concerns about the ‘cash-for-access’ arrangement, saying: “It’s always been the case that there have been conversations between members and the leadership, donors and the leadership, councillors and the leadership – they’re all part of the Conservative family.”
Speaking at a Tory conference fringe event hosted by The Telegraph, he added: “Most people give money to political parties as part of their civic duty and civic sense of responsibility.
“And they care about their country and they do it from exactly the right place.
“And by the way they put up with an awful lot of scrutiny and questions in doing so.
“And I would far rather have that free and open system, which I see as part of our liberties as a country, [so] we don’t have the state interfering in the funding of political parties.”
Mr Dowden launched a furious defence of co-chairman Ben Elliot amid concerns about his fundraising tactics.
The 46-year-old is the Duchess of Cornwall’s nephew and a director of Quintessentially – a “luxury lifestyle management service” for the super-rich.
He was dragged into a row when Quintessentially subscriber and Tory donor Mohamed Amersi claimed in July that Mr Elliot arranged for him to meet Prince Charles – after years of subscription payments.
The Registrar of Consultant Lobbyists found Mr Elliot did not need to register as a lobbyist but had advised him to be cautious about making a distinction between his Quintessentially role and his activities linked to the Government.
Mr Dowden told the event: “Ben is a fantastic man and one of the great fundraisers of the Conservative Party.
“He was the person who powered the election victory in 2019 – he’s broadened our base of supporters and brings a great deal of expertise.
“We’re getting along great”.
Mr Dowden dismissed press questions about Mr Elliot’s financial arrangements, claiming “I have seen this every single time” with other fundraisers.
He added: “I don’t believe Ben Elliot has done anything wrong, he’s properly separated his interests and so on.”
Elsewhere in the event, Mr Dowden was challenged by one of his own members over his attack on “virtue-signalling”, “middle-class academic” left-wingers.
He said he was “constantly having that fight as culture secretary”, warning of organisations like the National Trust: “If they go too woke, they risk going broke.”
But Albie Amankona, of Conservatives Against Racism For Equality, asked Mr Dowden: “I really don’t like the culture war and I really don’t like all of this anti-woke rhetoric.
“Was women’s suffrage woke? Was universal suffrage woke? Were gay rights woke?
“We couldn’t even suggest that people didn’t boo our national football team on the global stage.
“So my question is, have we learned anything from the progress of the last 100 years?”
In response, Mr Dowden insisted “this is not about standing in the way of greater opportunities for women and ethnic minority people.”
The party chairman also sniped at people working from home, saying: “People need to get off their Pelotons and back to their desks.” A Peloton exercise bike costs £1,750 plus a £39 a month subscription.
That is despite Mr Dowden’s own government outlining plans to make it easier to request home working just a few weeks ago.
Mr Dowden revealed staff will begin working in the new Tory co-headquarters in Leeds next month, with a formal opening and around 100 staff in the new year.
But there were cries of “hear, hear” when a member suggested the party was ignoring members’ voices at conference – and filtering contributions through a WhatsApp group.