We should be upset that the most extravagant social event of the year has been cancelled

ARK galas can raise as much as £26m in one night. Why are we storming the Bastille?

“It was all getting to feel a little bit 1788 and all that”. So said somebody connected with the opulent ARK gala in this week’s Financial Times. In one fell swoop, a symbolic link was drawn between Louis XVI’s pre-revolution balls at the Palace of Versailles and the annual ARK charity gala – thought of as the most extravagant social event of the year – that has this year been cancelled.

Just to give you a taste of this extravagance, previous ARK galas have been hosted in Kensington Palace Gardens and London Waterloo’s former Eurostar terminal, which was decked out with mature trees to resemble a woodland grove. Guests – mostly made up of "A-Listers" and financiers – have been entertained by Madonna, Bill Clinton and Prince, while served Krug and lobster. And the auction is another thing entirely – no homemade hampers here – prizes have ranged from a private dinner with Mikhail Gorbachev and yoga with Sting to a week on a private superyacht.

All the money from the gala – which has topped £100 m over the years – is donated to ARK (Absolute Return for Kids), a charity founded by Arpad “Arki” Busson, one of the country’s most successful hedge fund managers.

So it is little wonder that such an annual ostentatious gaiety has been cancelled. Such irresponsible illustrious in an age of austerity. Displays of excess while the remainder of the country is bordering on recession, claim most of the news stories, is not a good image.

But this is ignoring the wider point, which is raising money for charity is hard enough in these times. There is a simple rule: the more extravagant the party, the more money is raised. Besides, persuading wealthy individuals to part with their cash is no easy feat, so what if it takes Krug, Clinton and Madonna to entice wallets and purses to open.

In this, the hedge funds are leading the way. Chris Hohn is one of the UK’s most generous philanthropists having donated over £800m; his Children's Investment Fund Foundation receives direct grants from his hedge fund of the same name. Two other philanthropic arms of hedge funds – Tudor Investment Corporation and Tiger Management – accounted for about £110m in 2010 according to research by the Alternative Investment Management Association.

Then there are the parties, which – as the ARK gala has shown – can raise as much as £26m in one night. So, regardless of the 1 per cent vs. austerity, these types of events are crucial for charities and, unlike 1788, there will be no storming of the Bastille.

Kate Middleton at last year's ARK gala. Photograph: Getty Images

Oliver Williams is an analyst at WealthInsight and writes for VRL Financial News

Getty
Show Hide image

Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.