Called The City and Industrial Liaison Council, the body is chaired by the leading businessman, Sir Nigel Mobbs, and run by Major General Stuart Watson, a full-time Tory fund-raiser. A copy of a letter from the Council earlier this month detailing its activities and inviting potential donors to meet Ian Lang, President of the Board of Trade, has been passed to the Independent.
News of the Council's activities will reopen the controversy about party political funding. It highlights the increasingly important role played by senior ministers and raises questions about preferential access for party backers. Last night, John Prescott, the Labour Deputy Leader, wrote to the Prime Minister demanding to know what guidance ministers receive before attending party fund-raising events.
Mr Prescott said he was also concerned that by making a donation to the Council, rather that to the party direct, a company can hide its political support from shareholders and the public. What will concern people in this instance, wrote Mr Prescott, is that "donations will not appear in company accounts as donations to the Conservative Party".
This is not the first time the Tories have used a shadowy, ambiguously- titled body to generate funds. A few years ago, party finances were channelled through private companies named after English rivers. The party has also used Aims for Industry and British United Industrialists to enlist support.
The address of the Council is given as 32 Smith Square, London SW1 - the same address as Conservative Central Office. In the letter, Sir Nigel Mobbs writes: "The CILC arranges periodic meetings with the Prime Minister and other senior ministers..." The next meeting, he wrote, was to be with Mr Lang "by invitation of Arthur Andersen & Co", the giant accountancy and management consultancy firm, at its offices in central London.
Last night, a spokesman for Arthur Andersen said the meeting with Mr Lang was "hosted by a partner rather than the firm." It was a private matter for the partner whom he would not name, but added: "The firm does not have any political affiliations."
Mr Lang, said Sir Nigel, would "make a short opening statement and will then take part in questions and answers". The President of the Board of Trade would then stay on "to meet those present over a drink".
Sir Nigel Mobbs' office said he was in Los Angeles on business and could not be contacted. A Tory Central Office spokesman said the party had no comment to make about the Council.
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