Thursday 10 February 2022

Growing bananas by the Thames


Proving that there’s a direct causal link between a political donation and a favour granted is difficult at the best of times. The PM’s flat redecoration was funded by a man who was also seeking support for a pet project, and linking the two things in a single e-mail, as the PM appears to have done, inevitably raises the suspicion that there is a relationship between the two. Labour’s request that the police investigate is good knockabout politics, but is unlikely to be enough to ‘prove’, to the standard of evidence required by a court of law, that the one facilitated the other. The PM’s defence, through his spokesperson, is that the project never went ahead, so there was no corruption. It’s a bit weak, though – it could equally be argued that the ‘favour’ was giving the matter consideration. There is no doubt that it was indeed ‘considered’ before being rejected, and the question is surely whether publicly-funded time and effort would have been expended on even considering it if the request hadn’t come from a major donor.

There was a rather more clear-cut example of the relationship between donations and access last week, when another donor asked for his money to be refunded, apparently because it didn’t get him the level of access to ministers that he was led to expect. It comes to something when the degree to which donations and access are linked is regarded as being so normal that legal action can be threatened in an effort to enforce the implied terms of what might look to some as an essentially corrupt contract, or else demand repayment for default. But why does anyone think that rich people and businesses make large donations to a political party in the fist place? Whether the expectation is that they will get special favours, or merely that the overall legislative and regulatory climate will benefit them, is a question of degree not kind. An implicit quid pro quo is ever present, and is not a bug but a feature of political funding in the UK.

The UK is increasingly resembling a banana monarchy – like a banana republic but with a hereditary head of state. Whilst it’s true that we don’t actually have large scale banana production yet, that’s only because would-be banana producers haven’t yet bought sufficient access to the PM to be able to convince him that a giant banana plantation alongside the Thames is almost as good, in terms of his legacy, as a new garden bridge over the river. OK, the bananas wouldn’t grow alongside the Thames, but then we never got the bridge either. Some people made a lot of money from it, though. And isn’t opening up opportunities to make money what those large political donations are ultimately all about?

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