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A deal on party funding could enrage Tory backbenchers all over again

13 August 2012

4:30 PM

13 August 2012

4:30 PM

Are the Tories about to do a deal with the Liberal Democrats over political party funding? Benedict Brogan intriguingly suggests that David Cameron might offer a post-Lords reform olive branch to Nick Clegg — the state funding of political parties. In return, the Lib Dems would have to support a future vote on boundary change:

His side won’t like it, but it will be presented as Mr Clegg’s price for securing a review that gives the Tories more seats. And some Tories, including Mr Cameron, may be secretly delighted to reduce their reliance on donors who are never slow to voice their frustrations when things go wrong. With party memberships plummeting and grassroots cash support drying up, state funding is the gleam in the eye of most politicians. 

State funding of political parties has been floating around since the expenses scandal. The coalition agreement stated that the partners would pursue ‘reforming party funding in order to remove big money from politics’. This resulted in the Committee for Standards in Public Life’s November 2011 report, which recommended an extra £23 million in state funding, a £10,000 cap on individual donations and an ‘opt-in’ clause for trade unions. But none of the parties have made any firm commitments on this.

There are, however, two major obstacles for the Prime Minister to face if he attempts such a deal. The first is the public. Politicians are held in fairly low regard by voters, so begging them for money to fund their dealings would do little to enhance their reputation. The last YouGov poll on party funding (from March) found nearly 60 per cent oppose state funding. This included 64 per cent of Conservative voters. But only 32 per cent of Lib Dem voters said they would support state funding proposals.

The second issue is Cameron’s party. Tory backbenchers would see this as yet another concession to Nick Clegg. I spoke to Douglas Carswell, who believes it would be ‘absolutely disgraceful’ for Cameron to be ‘toying with the idea of state-subsidised politics’. In particular, he finds suggestions of a deal ‘bizarre and revolting’, given Cameron’s ‘new politics’ promise in May 2009.

Besides the ideological opposition to the state funding their activities, Tories are uncomfortable with the idea because they would stand to lose the most as the richest party. It would also line the coffers of minority parties, (i.e. the Lib Dems), who they are in no rush to assist.

For their part, Lib Dems are briefing that this would be an unacceptable trade, which is ironic given this was the same accusation the Tories made over Lords reform. Clegg would also lose face with his party if he did eventually turn around to support boundaries when he was unequivocal last week in threatening a ‘penalty’ for the Lords reform revolt.

Cameron is more open to the deal than his party because it reduces his reliance on the already decimated grassroots. But his MPs will feel that they could do without another dent to their reputation and standing as a party, especially when they are trailing in the polls.

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