British Prime Minister David Cameron defended himself and his party from a widening cash-for-access scandal today after his chief fundraiser was caught on camera promising private dinners and possible policy changes in exchange for donations.
Cameron today promised stricter fundraising rules and released the names of donors who he had hosted at dinners in his private residence, an attempt to argue "he has nothing to hide" after the opposition Labour party charged that British "policy is for sale" under the prime minister.
The Sunday Times newspaper had posted video on its website Sunday showing Conservative Party co-treasurer Peter Cruddas talking with Times reporters who were posing as would-be overseas donors while also secretly filming the meeting.
"Two hundred grand to 250 is Premiere League... what you get is, when we talk about your donations, the first thing we want to do is get you at the Cameron/Osborne dinners," Cruddas told the reporters, referring to a sum equivalent to about $400,000, and to dinners with Cameron and Treasury chief George Osborne.
Once inside those dinners, he continued, the would-be donors could ask "practically any question you want... If you're unhappy about something, we will listen to you and put it into the policy committee at No. 10 [the prime minister's office and residence]… It will be awesome for your business. You'll be well placed."
Cruddas resigned just before The Sunday Times posted the video.
Donors paying big bucks to gain access to politicians is nothing new and hardly confined to the other side of the pond. When President Obama held a state dinner in Washington for Cameron just two weeks ago, the White House invited more than three dozen "bundlers" – mega-fundraisers – who were responsible for raising $10.7 million for Obama.
But Cameron's critics today said that Cruddas' claims seemed to go beyond promising access; they say Cruddas was promising policy changes.
"This government has proved alarmingly susceptible to lobbying and 'bought favors,'" wrote Simon Jenkins in the British newspaper the Guardian, an outspoken critic of Cameron. "Revelations of cash for access and thus cash for policy are… a deep offense against democracy."
Cameron and his allies argue that Cruddas was "boasting" and offering access that he could not actually deliver.
In a speech today, Cameron defended himself from withering criticism, saying he had done nothing wrong.
"In the two years I have been prime minister, there have been three occasions on which significant donors have come to a dinner in my flat. In addition, there was a further post-election dinner which included donors in Downing Street itself shortly after the general election," he said during a speech that was supposed to focus on dementia research. "None of these dinners were fundraising dinners and none of these dinners were paid for by the taxpayer. I have known most of those attending for many years."
Cameron's critics say he has failed to follow-up on his own promises; when he ran for prime minister in 2010, he said he would limit the access that lobbyists enjoyed.
"We all know how it works," he said in 2010 in a speech in east London. "The lunches, the hospitality, the quiet word in your ear… I believe that secret corporate lobbying, like the expenses scandal, goes to the heart of why people are so fed up with politics… An issue that exposes the far-too-cozy relationship between politics, government, business and money."
During that speech, Cameron pledged to shine "the light of transparency" on lobbying so that politicians come "clean about who is buying power and influence."
The video of Cruddas, Cameron's critics argued, shows that Cameron's party has flouted that promise. Cruddas' own words seem to suggest that donors could get immediate access if they offered enough money, quickly.
"Things will open up for you, but you need to go in,'' he said to the reporters posing as would-be donors, making a motion with his hand seemingly meant to urge them to begin with a large donation. "It's no good scratching around; '10 grand now, and we'll send you 5 grand.' Minimum, 100 grand. Minimum."
Cruddas' promises of access seem to echo those made on the official Conservative Party website. For the equivalent of $79,000, donors become part of the "Leader's Group." "Members are invited to join David Cameron and other senior figures from the Conservative Party at dinners, post-PMQ lunches, drinks receptions, election result events and important campaign launches," the website promises.
Cameron has not only been criticized by his traditional media and political opponents. Media mogul Rupert Murdoch, who owns The Sunday Times, Britain's largest newspaper, as well as The Sun, and Fox News, and who was, until recently, considered close to Cameron, took to Twitter with apparent glee over his paper's scoop.
"What was Cameron thinking? No-one, rightly or wrongly, will believe his story," Murdoch quipped.
A few hours later, Murdoch added: "Without trust, democracy and order will go. Of course there must be a full independent inquiry on both sides. In great detail, and with consequences. Trust must be established."
Today, Cameron promised to tighten rules restricting when donors are allowed to offer advice on policy and to limit individual political donations to $79,000.
His allies continued to argue that access for donors does not equate to policy change -- and that Cruddas was not following party rules. Cruddas had only held his post, they said, for a month before he resigned.
"The key thing to say about Peter Cruddas is that actually what he was saying was both wrong and not true," Francis Maude, whose role as Cabinet Minister is similar to that of the White House Chief of Staff, argued on British network ITV. "He had been told that there are very strict rules around how you raise money and he was off on a bit of private enterprise there."
The money raised and spent by political parties in the United Kingdom has risen in recent years, but is a fraction to that spent in the United States. Cameron's Conservative Party spent about $26 million during the 2010 elections, double the amount spent by Labour. During the U.S. election this year, President Obama is expected to raise at least $1 billion.