For party managers, a row involving a wealthy political donor is always tricky to handle. It must have been nightmarishly hard in a week dominated by news of questionable goings-on in the Swiss outpost of a British bank. Ministers and many MPs who get into difficulty will take orders on how to extricate themselves from a media storm. But the rich individuals who fund Britain’s political parties — particularly the Conservatives — tend to be less biddable.
Powerful people, used to getting their own way inside companies, want to plot their own course when it comes to defending their reputations. This may help explain how Lord Fink, a pugnacious titan of the hedge fund world, was allowed to make such a mess of his assault on Ed Miliband. On Wednesday, when the Labour leader tried to implicate Lord Fink in the HSBC tax avoidance scandal, the self-made former Tory treasurer was furious. Legal action was mooted if Mr Miliband repeated the allegations outside the chamber of the House of Commons, where parliamentary privilege gives members immunity.
Yet within 24 hours, Lord Fink had chosen to clarify the position in an interview. Yes, he had taken part in some bland, “vanilla” tax avoidance. What was the problem? It is legal and everyone does it, he said. Labour was delighted. While one knows what Lord Fink was trying to say, when millions of Britons try to legally minimise their tax bill, there is a difference of perception between savers opting to store small sums in tax-efficient savings accounts and hedge fund bosses sending money to Switzerland. The casual phrasing, too, was a gift that Labour used to energise its accident-prone campaign.
But it would be a mistake to dismiss this tax row as a trivial incident in a lamentable election campaign. The Fink affair matters because the Tories’ biggest electoral problem remains the view that the party is on the side of the rich. Poll after poll shows this to be a persistent problem. Even some voters whose instincts are thoroughly conservative when it comes to the need for the reform of welfare, education or taxation, still fear the Tory leadership are a hard-hearted lot who favour their elite friends over the public services.
This may be wrong, or a distortion based on a misreading of the prime minister’s demeanour, but there it is. The considerable effort put in by Mr Cameron in the early years of his leadership to alter perceptions was insufficiently successful and the Conservatives are still a long way from constructing a new electoral coalition that might include aspirational voters, the affluent and the super-rich. There has been no attempt to repair this weakness; no optimistic, inclusive vision of what five more years of the Conservatives might mean.
What is most remarkable is that knowing the extent of this image problem — and hearing it in focus groups — the party hierarchy decided to go ahead with last week’s glitzy “black-and-white ball” fundraiser at the Grosvenor Hotel in London, where auction prizes included a sailing trip on one of the world’s fastest yachts, a £12,000 Rolex watch, a shoe-shopping trip with Home Secretary Theresa May and a (potentially very entertaining) dinner with the chief whip Michael Gove and his wife, the journalist Sarah Vine. I mention all this not to knock Lord Fink, nice dinners or trips on yachts, but merely to ask why the leadership persists in being so tone deaf this close to an election.
The best the party’s high command can hope for is that voters have not noticed the latest row over donors, the tax avoidance activities of banks, or the black-and-white ball. If the voters have noticed, the next best hope must be that such things are already priced in. Perhaps the Tories being close to rich people lacks shock value, and Labour complaining about poor behaviour by financiers — when in office it failed to regulate the City properly — is a bit rich.
Mr Miliband’s hope, meanwhile, is that he can gain some small advantage that might enable him to squeak into Number 10. His frantic attempts to prop up the Labour core vote have received an unexpected fillip. Lord Fink’s intervention confirms the anti-Tory prejudices of voters who have residual respect for the Labour brand while not caring for the party’s leader.
If such tactics are understandable in an election in which the two main parties are scrapping to win on about 34 per cent of the vote, the Fink affair does illustrate a broader failure of the political elite. Both leaders are fighting a narrow, parochial campaign. Yet the international situation — in Greece, Ukraine and the Middle East — looks graver than it has in a generation.
The writer is author of “Making It Happen: Fred Goodwin, RBS and the men who blew up the British economy”
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