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26 March 2012

Can Cameron hold the line?

Why Downing Street will have to publish a list of donor dinners.

By George Eaton

David Cameron had hoped that the media would today focus on his government’s promise of new funding for dementia research – a “good news” story after the calamitous Budget. Instead, it is his refusal to publish a list of the Conservative donors treated to dinner at No 10 that dominates today’s front pages. The Tory Party’s admission that two large donors [former Conservative treasurer Michael Spencer and the party’s current chief executive, Andrew Feldman] were among the guests has only heightened the pressure for full disclosure.

It was left to Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude to hold the line on the Today programme this morning, with disastrous results. “This is a bit of a nonsense,” he ill-advisedly declared at one point. Elsewhere, in a desperate attempt to change the subject, he launched an assault on Labour’s trade union links. “Is that your response then, when you’ve been caught, to point the finger at the other party?”, replied presenter Evan Davis, speaking for many. Maude described the idea that party donors can influence policy as “absurd”. But that only invites the response: why not publish the list? Until Cameron does, his party will look irredeemably shady. As the PM himself once remarked, “sunlight is the best disinfectant”.

Worryingly for the Tories, it isn’t just Labour and the left calling for full disclosure. The right-wing press is on the warpath and at least one Conservative MP – Mark Field – has publicly called for a “full and comprehensive list” of donor dinners. The government’s stated ambition to be the “most open and transparent” in the world has created an expectation of disclosure.

Despite Maude’s bluster, it’s increasingly likely that Downing Street will publish a list of dinners for donations. Indeed, the principal obstacle to doing so is a practical one – no such list currently exists. Channel 4’s Gary Gibbon reports that “Samantha Cameron has had to trawl her diary because the dinners in the flat would be private occasions not recorded officially.” From a tactical perspective, if nothing else, Downing Street would be wise to ensure she does so speedily.

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