Lavish Conservative banquet toned down as Cameron changes tack

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The Black and White Ball used to be the high point of the social calendar for British Conservatives, an evening for the rich to shower the party with donations.

But this year, with tensions growing inside the party over whether Britain should stay in Europe, and as David Cameron tries to craft a legacy as a warrior for social justice, the event fell flat, as did its fundraising target.

Just hours before Mr Cameron arrived at the £15,000-a-table venison and sea bass banquet for Tory donors, he was busy launching an overhaul of Britain’s crumbling prisons and vowing to tackle the country’s “deepest social problems”.

The disparity between the two events shows why senior Conservatives have become uncomfortable with the lavish, but secret, dinner.

Last year it attracted a welter of bad publicity as Mr Cameron was accused of rubbing shoulders with “porn barons, shady financiers and hedge fund kings”.

But the Conservatives did at least benefit from the sums it raised as they stepped up their election campaign.

This year, with politicians no longer in urgent need of campaign cash, many took a more low-key approach to the event. Most ministers arrived in business suits rather than the traditional black tie, triggering grumbles from attendees.

“It is like people are embarrassed to be there,” one senior figure complained. “It is incredibly disrespectful to make people who are going to donate the money wear black tie and then all the politicians turn up in suits.”

Even the auction was toned down. In previous years the party’s fundraisers have included flamboyant offerings such as the hire of nightclub Annabel’s, a private jet trip to a Greek island, use of a luxury Swiss skiing chalet, an “iron man” fitness contest with Iain Duncan Smith and a shoe-shopping trip with Theresa May.

In 2014 the wife of a Russian oligarch famously paid a reported £160,000 for a game of tennis with David Cameron and Boris Johnson.

By contrast, the biggest name on offer on Monday night was a day campaigning with Tory mayoral contender Zac Goldsmith, which sold for £35,000.

Some memorabilia did better: four Conservative election posters signed by Mr Cameron went for £50,000.

But the sale is not thought to have raised as much money as it had in previous years. A Conservative spokeswoman declined to say how much had been raised, but one Tory donor who attended the evening said the auction “did not go on for long and did not raise a huge amount of money”.

“It felt more like a village fete than a Tory plutocrat ball,” another said.

Donors who attended the bash were also irked about the party’s ongoing tensions over the European referendum. Mr Cameron “tried to justify how well he’d done on the compromise [but] it didn’t wash with anyone”, one said.

“Everyone was talking about Europe and the referendum and it was the one thing Cameron didn’t want to talk about,” said a fellow attendee.

The auction brochure distributed to diners said the aim of the fundraiser was to create “a fighting fund to keep Corbyn, Livingstone, Abbott and other longstanding socialists from ever gaining a proper platform at Westminster”.

But the subdued nature of the event reflected a certain complacency that has crept into Conservative thinking in the face of ongoing Labour party woes, one partygoer suggested.

“In previous years you were there for a reason — to keep David Cameron in power. There was a tangible realistic enemy in those days. Now the supposed enemy is just a comical bunch of idiots.”

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