Are the Tories missing a trick by snubbing their former leader, Sir John Major, who was left out of a dinner for surviving Tory prime ministers this week?
A “Dinner of the Century” featuring the other three living occupants of 10 Downing Street – Boris Johnson, Theresa May and David Cameron – was auctioned off for £120,000 to an unnamed donor at the Tories’ summer party on Monday night.
Sir John, who has been harshly critical of Johnson, was not invited (he was PM in a different century, afterall). A party source said: “We assumed he wouldn’t want to have dinner with Boris.”
The former PM’s spokesman told me: “Sir John was not invited to do this. However, if he had, he would have declined – as he has for all such requests in the past.”
Then she added: “There is no control over who might bid for ‘access’ and, for that reason, we believe it is best to steer clear. There are other ways to lend support.”
This was a clear swipe at the “cash for access” fundraising model which the party has used to raise money since Cameron set up the Leaders’ Clubs when the party was in opposition. (People could get access to Cameron for £50,000 a year or his shadow chancellor George Osborne for £25,000 a year.)
The idea, then, was to wean the party off relying on a single donor like Lord Ashcroft who saved the party from extinction in the years after Tony Blair’s 1997 election landslide.
This way of raising money is of course preferable to state funding via a tax on all of us. But it needs policing so that the access is not abused.
The Tories do not always get it right – co-chairman Ben Elliot apologised for “rolling out the red carpet” to Tory donor Richard Desmond and allowing him to lobby the then-local government secretary Robert Jenrick over a property deal – and Sir John is clearly worried about it.
With Labour overtaking the Tories in its funds raised in the most recent quarter, amid so far unfounded fears that donors might sit on their hands over the direction of tax policy (Labour raised £5.3 million to the Tories’ £4.6 million in Q1 2022, according to the Electoral Commission), the pressure on the Conservatives will increase to top up the election war chest. Monday night’s event raised over £500,000 for the Conservatives.
There is another reason to listen to Sir John, who kept his own counsel for well over a decade after the 1997 defeat before roaring back in 2013 with a scorching attack on the Cameron administration and the private school boys running his government.
At a press gallery lunch I organised, Sir John called for a one-off windfall tax on the excess profits of the energy companies to fund extra support for the millions of people who faced a choice between eating or heating their homes that winter.
Sir John said in the same speech that his party had to represent the millions of “silent have-nots locked into lace curtain poverty”, and retain its compassion for those struggling to make ends meet.
Sounds familiar? You can imagine an ambitious Tory who wants to replace Johnson making just such a speech today.
Sir John, like so many others, lost his way badly over Brexit, taking aim at Leavers, the 2016 referendum result and, more recently, Johnson and the way he has been running the Government.
But he is still one of only four living Tory prime ministers, the boy from Brixton who made it to 10 Downing Street
As the party prepares for a re-run of the cost of living arguments that shaped the 2015 general election campaign, perhaps – with inflation hitting a 40-year high today – it is time to start listening to Sir John again. The present-day Conservative party might learn something.