BLACKPOOL, WEDNESDAY: The Conservative Party leader, John Major, yesterday succeeded in his high-risk attempt to reform the financing and organisation of the party. Mr Major, and other 'reformers' in the party, were seeking to end the system by which large corporations and private individuals, sometimes of uncertain repute, had funded the Conservative Party in return for knighthoods, tax breaks and other policy decisions coincidentally beneficial to their activities.
The move had been opposed by the 'traditionalists', backed by the so-called 'corporate barons' who donate millions of pounds each year to the Conservative Party without holding ballots among their workforces.
'We cannot be taken seriously as a party of government until we have put our house in order,' the party leader told delegates, during a stormy and passionate debate. He was moving Composite 17, the so-called SUTTI (Stop Under The Table Influence) option, proposed by himself and his senior colleagues.
During lunchtime, there was a palpable atmosphere of tension in Blackpool's one four-star restaurant as the 'corporate barons' tried to cut deals over champagne and smoked salmon sandwiches. Airline and food industry bosses were attempting to produce a rival WABBK (Wait A Bit Before Knighthoods) package, which might have proved more attractive to entrenched commercial interests. However, one hardline industrialist leaving the meeting was heard to mutter, 'No say, no K, no pay'.
As the debate resumed in the afternoon, the predictions were that Mr Major lacked the necessary support. But the mood of the hall changed during a speech from 'traditionalist' delegate A Nadir (North Cyprus Conservatives), whose contribution was made, for logistical reasons, by satellite.
Mr Nadir told conference, in an often emotional speech: 'The links between the Conservative Party and businessmen are part of its great tradition. You need us as much as we need you] Don't throw it all away]'
The proceedings were lightened by a typically amusing contribution from the backbencher Teresa Gorman. 'I don't see why Mr Major is so desperate to get this rule change through,' she told delegates. 'He's made such a mess of the country that no one wants to give us any bloody money anyway.'
In his winding up speech, the party chairman, Sir Norman Fowler, addressed Mrs Gorman's point. It was true, he admitted, that the Prime Minister had succeeded, through efforts unconnected with his motion before conference, in loosening the links between the Conservative Party and big business. Both men felt, however, that it was vital to put new rules in place, in case there should come a time in the future when industrialists again wished to make donations.
In the end, the contribution from the North Cyprus Conservatives seemed to be decisive and SUTTI was carried by a small percentage of delegates. However, in a typically confusing outcome, delegates also supported the WABBK proposal. Sir Norman Fowler insisted afterwards that this was not a contradiction.
Conference also voted in favour of Composite 43, a proposal sponsored by Lord Tebbit and Norman Lamont, that former Conservative ministers will in future be barred for a period of three years from accepting non-executive directorships or other employment from companies involved in areas for which they previously held responsibility as ministers. This is the so-called ABBAHAJ (A Back Bencher Already Has A Job) proposal.
'Last week, Labour shadow ministers, many of them sponsored by unions, voted to reduce the influence on their party of those unions,' said Lord Tebbit in his speech during the debate. 'In the same spirit, Mr Lamont and myself, despite having left the DTI and the Treasury respectively for employment with British Telecom and Rothschilds, are seeking to loosen such institutionalised links between our party and such organisations. The point is not that there
is anything dishonest in these arrangements, but that voters may find them uncomfortable . . .'
The initiative from the two Normans would, if it had been in force in previous years, also have cast doubt over the employment by the Royal Bank of Scotland, which holds the Conservative Party's accounts, of Sir George Younger, the former chairman of the Scottish Tories.
Well, we can dream. At the real Tory conference, even if it were suddenly to become a forum for debate rather than an organised appreciation of ministers' speeches, WABBK would struggle to command a majority of delegates. SUTTI would be sunk, and ABBAHAJ would be laughed out of conference by an alliance of departed ministers, assuming that their non-executive directorships and consultancies left them time to attend.
It is true that a story you were able to read in the papers this weekend was that Mr Major and Sir Norman Fowler - following years of pressure from the quite genuine Tory reformer on funding, Eric Chalker - have finally consented to publish fairly detailed annual accounts of the party's finances. But even this this document contains no detailed breakdown of individual and corporate donations. And for former ministers to sell their privileged expertise, and their privileged contacts and access, within months of leaving office is regarded as routine.
Yet, despite this, a newspaper report you almost certainly will be reading from the Conservative Party conference this week is one along the lines of:
BLACKPOOL, FRIDAY: John Major today attacked last week's adoption at the Labour Party conference in Brighton of OMOV (One member, one vote) as 'a cosmetic alteration' which was 'too little, too late'. Mr Major told delegates: 'Mr Smith's so-called triumph has done nothing to address the fundamental questions of the funding and control of the Labour Party. They say they have put their house in order, but the wolf is still at the door]'
The Tory conference is widely predicted to be a hothouse this year. But it will also be, in the vast hypocrisy of its rhetoric on finances and influence, a glasshouse.Reuse content