Viktor Deni ‘Kapital’ 1919

Courtship by mega-donors

Tories are still capitalism’s preferred party of government, but Labour’s commanding poll lead helps explain why so many of the filthy rich are shifting their loyalties, writes Eddie Ford

Another damning poll suggests that the Tory Party is on course for a historic drubbing. This time it is an Ipsos poll taken between February 21 and 28, exploring public attitudes to the main parties and their leaders in the run-up to the next general election.1 The Conservatives’ share of 20% is the lowest ever recorded by the polling group since its regular political monitor series began in 1978, with Labour on 47% - meaning Labour’s lead is 27 points (up from 22 in January).

In more bad news for the Tories, only 62% of their supporters say they are certain to vote, as opposed to 76% of Labour voters. Meanwhile, an extremely large 83% of those who responded are ‘dissatisfied’ with the way the government is running the country (up five points from January), compared to 10% for the ‘satisfied’ (down three points). As for Rishi Sunak’s net approval rating, it is at a record low of -54, whilst Sir Keir Starmer’s net score of -26 is only slightly above his lowest finding of -29 in May 2021. In other words, the UK population are not very keen on either of them, which is more than understandable.

When Ipsos asked which issues are likely to be the most important when deciding how to vote, for Labour voters it was the NHS, but for Conservatives the top issues are immigration and the economy. Perhaps most alarmingly of all for the Tories, given that historically they have always had a lead over Labour when it comes to ‘economic credibility’ - mainly thanks to press bias, of course - Labour is now seen as having the best policies on managing the economy by a margin of 31% to the Conservative score of 23%. Possibly the icing on the cake for Labour, the British public think that shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves would make the most capable chancellor by a margin of 39% to 24% - up from a 12-point lead in October and June last year.

If you are to believe Ipsos - and there is no particular reason not to, as nearly all the polls have had more or less the same results for some time now (just not quite so bad for the Tories) - then it looks almost impossible to turn the situation around. Certainly Jeremy Hunt’s ‘giveaway’ budget will not do it. Indeed, barring an exceptional set of events, things look set to get worse for the Conservative Party, with the economy going nowhere and the international situation looking highly unfavourable - an Israeli genocide of the Gazan people, for instance, would hardly improve its poll ratings. Some commentators, such as John Rentoul, are writing about the Tories having just 25 seats left after the general election in a 1993-style Canada wipeout.

Labour’s commanding lead in the polls helps to explain why sections of big business and the City are engaged in an ardent courtship of Sir Keir and his front bench. No-one believes that the Tories will win the next election, hence the swarm of lobbyists, business paid researchers, social meet-ups, consultancy services … and cash donations. Last year Labour took more money from private individuals and business than trade unions - a considerable victory for Lord Peter Mandelson and his Global Counsel lobbying firm. After all, we cannot have Labour reliant on “hard-left trade unions”.


However, showing that the Tories are still the capitalist class’s preferred party of government, money is still flowing into the coffers of Conservative Campaign Headquarters: there is a solid Tory base amongst hedge fund managers, bankers, CEOs and the filthy rich. However, they fear, they know, the Tories are set to lose big time in 2024.

Hence the despondent, fatalistic mood found amongst the mega-donors and supporters, who last week gathered for the invitation-only Tory Winter Ball at Whitehall’s former war office-turned-luxury hotel: Raffles London - where the cheapest rooms cost over £1,000. Gallows humour about the Conservatives can be found in abundance within the City (traditionally a party stronghold, of course). Hours before the event kicked off, it is reported that a senior banker asked why anybody who is not still a big donor would even bother attending. Came the reply: “It’s the last party on the Titanic” - so why not have a blast, while you still can?2

As for the annual ball - compered by the avuncular Gyles Brandreth, former Tory MP and long-time broadcaster - it is a staple in the party’s fundraising calendar that was attended by prominent donors. They included the billionaire entrepreneur, Bassim Haidar, who arrived in a personalised Rolls-Royce and owns a fleet of yachts, telling Boat International magazine in December that his lifestyle at one point resembled the 2013 film, The wolf of Wall Street. On the night, an unnamed Conservative donor paid £25,000 for an exclusive, multi-course Japanese dinner for themselves and three other people with Jeremy Hunt. The prize was one of five multi-thousand-pound lots auctioned during the event. Other wealthy donors spotted included Lubov Chernukhin, a banker married to Vladimir Putin’s former deputy finance minister who has donated millions. She had previously bid tens of thousands of pounds to play tennis with Boris Johnson - though we do not know who won. Then there was Mohamed Mansour, the billionaire businessman and former Egyptian transport minister, and Henry Angest, the Swiss-born British banker.

The ball raised more than £200,000 for the party, which brought in just under £16 million in donations in the third quarter of last year, three times as much as Labour - evidence of the Conservatives’ continued ability to attract significant donations despite the massive gulf between them and Labour in the polls. For example, John Sainsbury (aka Baron Sainsbury of Preston Candover) left them a record donation of £10 million in his will.

But things are changing, as the number of mega-donors becomes smaller. Tory insiders are well aware they can no longer count on the City in the way they once did - old tribal loyalties are no longer working. During the 2015 election campaign, ex-party chair Andrew Feldman convinced more than 100 senior executives from companies employing more than half a million people to endorse Conservative economic policies in an open letter. However, at a recent dinner attended by Rachel Reeves and other Labour dignitaries, Feldman was heard saying that there “wouldn’t be the same letter campaign from businesses this election” - it would be impossible to play the same trick now.

Summing it up, Charlie Mullins - a former donor and millionaire Pimlico Plumbers’ founder, who stopped donating to the party after Brexit - has stated that “all the money in the world won’t boost the Tories’ election chances”. In fact, all the wealthy people he knows “are buying Swiss francs, not giving it to the Conservatives” - a tarnished brand that is in danger of sinking below the water line.

New friends

While the Tories are losing friends in the City, Labour is gaining them, as Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves make a serious pitch as the pro-business party. According to Open Democracy, bankers and finance companies have handed Labour £2 million since 2022, on top of that donated by wealthy individuals - such as the other Sainsbury, David, and cousin to John, one of the biggest private financial backers of Labour, along with his philanthropist daughter, Fran Perrin, a former advisor to Tony Blair. Other one million-plus donors include the South African-born ex-Autoglass chief, Gary Lubner, and Dale Vince, founder of Ecotricity - who has an estimated fortune of £100 million and has given money to both Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion. These are Labour’s very own mega-donors.

There is also a growing number of former Tory donors who have switched to Labour - like fund manager Kasim Kutay, who runs life sciences investor Novo Holdings; and entrepreneur and investor Gareth Quarry, who has described the Tories as unelectable. The boss of the Iceland supermarket chain, Richard Walker, has also switched his allegiance, while billionaire property tycoon Nick Candy, who donated to the Conservatives under Boris Johnson, suggested last month that he could support Labour at the next election: “Maybe it’s time for some change,” he said.

Robin MacGeachy is the owner of Peak Scientific, a world leader in gas generators, which formerly donated to the Tories but has now turned its attention to Scottish Labour. You could also mention Stuart Roden - best known for his time as chair of Lansdowne Partners, who has given £180,000 to the party this year - and Grant Mansfield, founder of the TV production company, Plimsoll, who handed over £50,000 earlier this year. Then we have Sir Victor Blank, former chair of Lloyds TSB, giving £175,000 since 2020, much of which was used to fund staff for Rachel Reeves - clearly anticipating the future. There will be plenty of others beating a path to the party’s door, as the election gets nearer, no doubt eager to be associated with the winning team.

In return, Starmer has promised “friendship”, saying he wanted to work alongside business leaders to rebuild Britain - “Your fingerprints are on every one of our national missions,” he declared recently. Reeves is offering some assurances to business by pledging not to raise corporation tax above 25% in the first term of a Labour government, and to retain the “full expensing” regime that rewards companies with a tax break when they invest in new plant and technology. She also upset people by saying that a Labour government will not re-impose a cap on bankers’ bonuses despite the fact that not so long ago she was attacking the Tories for scrapping it - but what matters above all is “fiscal responsibility”, so it had to go.

As Reeves explained, “This Labour Party sees profit not as something to be disdained, but as a mark of business.” Labour’s big business donors can certainly rest assured that their contributions are good investments in the future.

  1. ipsos.com/en-uk/labour-lead-economy-and-public-services-conservative-share-falls-record-low.↩︎

  2. www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2024/03/02/labour-sweep-city-of-london-as-conservatives-tories-panic.↩︎