Saturday, June 9, 2012

Scotland Yard Launches Investigation Into Tory 'Cash For Access' Affair.

Scotland Yard has begun an investigation into the Conservative Party cash-for-access scandal that saw its chief fundraiser claim a £250,000 donation would buy private meetings with David Cameron in Downing Street.
Peter Cruddas resigned as the Tories' co-treasurer in March after he told undercover reporters that paying the party £250,000 would buy "premier league" access to the Prime Minister, including intimate dinners with Mr Cameron and his wife Samantha in their flat above No 10.

The Metropolitan Police probe is particularly bad timing for Mr Cameron. He and the Chancellor, George Osborne, have been called before the Leveson Inquiry at the Royal Courts of Justice next week. They will be grilled over their links with Rupert and James Murdoch and the appointment of Andy Coulson to No 10 as the Prime Minister's media director, without customary security checks. Both may have to hand over text messages and emails for publication. The Electoral Commission, which has been conducting its own review of potential offences committed under party political laws, confirmed last night that the allegations against Mr Cruddas "are being dealt with seriously by the police". The commission has offered the Met team its expertise should it be required.

Mr Cruddas, a City billionaire and, until his resignation, the Tories' largest donor, giving them £215,000 in the first three months of this year, resigned his party post earlier this year following a "sting" operation in which he was covertly filmed telling undercover reporters that donations of "200 grand to 250 is premier league" and could mean dinners with the Camerons in the PM's private apartment in Downing Street. Access to Mr Osborne was also promised.

Mr Cruddas's claim that donations of £250,000 and more would be "awesome for your business" was made despite him being told the money would be coming from a Liechtenstein-based fund. Under electoral law it is illegal to accept donations from foreign funds.

Options alleged to have been discussed in the sting operation are said to have included the creation of a British subsidiary front company and also the potential use of UK employees who would act as financial conduits. Mr Cruddas said afterwards that he regretted "any impression of impropriety" arising from his "bluster".

The public relations executive Mark Adams, who called for an investigation into the actions of Mr Cruddas, has now been told in a letter from the Electoral Commission's chief executive, Peter Wardle: "If you have any concerns about the police investigation, you can of course raise those concerns with them."

Mr Cruddas claimed following his resignation that he had acted without the knowledge of the leadership of his party. Tory headquarters subsequently said that no donation was ever accepted or even formally considered and Mr Cameron called his former fundraiser's promises "completely unacceptable".

Mr Cameron's own internal party inquiry into the scandal faces an uncertain future. With a police investigation in progress, questions will be asked about the validity and effectiveness of the Conservatives' probe into cash-for-access, which is currently being conducted by the Tory life peer Lord Gold.

The terms of reference of the Gold inquiry, ordered by Mr Cameron, have already been criticised as intentionally limited. Although Mr Cruddas's promises involved the Prime Minister, Lord Gold's remit makes no mention of Mr Cameron, other than to state that the report will be handed directly to him.

A senior Conservative Party source told The Independent that given Scotland Yard's decision to mount a criminal investigation, the party would now have little choice but to put Lord Gold's exercise "on hold".

Labour's shadow Cabinet Office minister, Michael Dugher, said: "Allegations that David Cameron's chief fundraiser was attempting to solicit illegal donations and selling access to the Prime Minister called into question the whole integrity of the Government. So it is right that the Metropolitan Police are taking them seriously.

"It's vital that their investigation is allowed to take its course and that they receive the fullest support from both Downing Street and the Conservative Party."

Scotland Yard last night declined to discuss the matter, with a spokeswoman saying that its position had not changed since the resignation of Mr Cruddas in March. The spokeswoman said that the Met had been liaising with the Electoral Commission and that its detectives "continued to assess the allegations" made.

A Conservative Party spokesman said: "The Conservative Party has launched a full inquiry led by Lord Gold and will co-operate fully with the police."