Revealed: new Tory party bribery scandal

Click to follow
The Independent Online
IN 1861, John Stuart Mill famously called the Tories "by the law of their existence, the stupidest party". Perhaps the philosopher spoke too soon.

Unknown to Mill and the Whig government of the day, the Conservative opposition of the early 1860s had become secret pioneers of the spin-doctor's art.

Instead of bullying journalists or supporting the interests of proprietors, they simply opened their ample wallets in the direction of sympathetic newspapers.

Today, evidence of their bribes to editors, columnists and journalists is revealed at the annual Antiquarian Book Fair at Olympia in London.

A ledger entitled the "Private Purpose Newspaper Fund" contains a list of Tory landed gentry and MPs who in 1863 contributed to a slush fund designed to keep the press sweet as their party passed through a Hague- like trough.

It was bought for pounds 30 by an antiquarian bookseller, Tony Fothergill, who found it among the ephemera at a small book fair. He believes the hand- written ledger was intended for senior party figures, showing who had contributed to the Tories' press manipulation.

Its opening page details the fund's aims and the party leaders who were to administer it. "The following noblemen and gentlemen have been appointed to the sub-committee for the purpose of collecting a private fund for purposes connected with the metropolitan press and its relations with the Conservative Party." There follows a list of senior figures, including the Earl of Malmesbury and Lord Colville, who ran the party's propaganda fund.

"The object of this fund," the ledger claims, "is to provide a confidential medium between the heads of the Conservative Party and the ostensible editors of The Morning Herald and The Standard newspapers through which the plans of the Party may be communicated and its objects advocated... It is then intended to apply whatever funds may remain towards the payment of writers and in the general elevation of the tone of the Conservative Press."

The decision to direct funds at the Conservative press echoes the desperation of the present. In 1863, Lord Palmerston, a former Tory, was Whig prime minister, with a glittering Cabinet that included W E Gladstone as Chancellor. The Tories, then as now, needed all the help they could get.

It is almost as if William Hague, fed up with the bashing he gets from supposed supporters, decided to send the editor of The Daily Telegraph an envelope full of cash.

Last century's Tories were returned to office, but only in a fragile minority government that collapsed in 1868.

The newspaper fund committee of the 1860s wanted secrecy, so all those who provided funds were told: "No subscriptions will be accepted except upon this understanding: no accounts or detailed explanations will be rendered." Which is similar to the Tories' policy on party funding to this day.