New Scandal Haunts Britain's Conservatives

A new political scandal has hit Britain's ruling Conservative Party. A senior official has resigned over an influence-peddling scheme uncovered by a British newspaper.

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Want a private dinner with the British Prime Minister, David Cameron? Want a shot at influencing British government policy? Well, all you need is $400,000, at least so says a senior fundraiser from the prime minister's Conservative Party. The official was caught on camera making this boast to undercover reporters from Rupert Murdoch's Sunday Times.

And as we hear from NPR's Philip Reeves, their secret video has ignited a political scandal that today went into overdrive.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: The footage is the stuff of a prime minister's nightmares. It features the co-treasurer of Britain's Conservative Party, Peter Cruddas. He's talking to Sunday Times reporters who are posing as foreign financiers. British law bans overseas companies from donating money to political parties. That doesn't seem to worry Cruddas. He describes how a donation of between 320 and $400,000 secures access to the big fish: Cameron and Finance Minister George Osborne.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM FOOTAGE)

PETER CRUDDAS: When we talk about your donations...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Yes.

CRUDDAS: ...the first thing we want to do is get you at the Cameron and Osborne dinners.

REEVES: Cruddas suggests big donors even get the chance to try to shape policy.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM FOOTAGE)

CRUDDAS: If you're unhappy about something, you can get - we can - we'll listen to you, and we'll put it into the policy committee at number 10.

REEVES: Cruddas says his words were just bluster and not, in fact, true. He's resigned. The issue caused uproar in Britain's parliament.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOUTING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Order, order, order, order, order.

REEVES: Cameron wasn't there. He left the damage control to one of his ministers, Francis Maude.

FRANCIS MAUDE: What Peter Cruddas said was completely unacceptable and wrong.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOUTING)

REEVES: Maude said Britain's party funding system needs reforming.

MAUDE: We need to look at donations and how to limit them. We need to look at affiliate bodies. The prime minister has once again said that he's ready to cap donations but only if it's agreed that the cap applies to all donations whatever their source.

REEVES: Britain's Conservative Party already openly offers dinner with Cameron to donors who give $80,000. But this is about offering donors the chance to influence policy, a point pounced on by Ed Miliband, leader of the Labour opposition party.

ED MILIBAND: Mr. Speaker, Mr. Speaker, these represent grave allegations about the way that access is gained and policy is made.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yes.

MILIBAND: They're about a breaking down of the lines between support for a political party and government policy.

REEVES: This scandal is damaging to Prime Minister Cameron. His critics often accuse him of cozying up to rich business interests. And he was elected on a promise of curbing corporate lobbying. Cameron is now promising more transparency. He's also announced an internal Conservative Party inquiry led by a conservative peer, Lord Gold. This has outraged Labour Party members who want an independent investigation. Party funding has long been a source of controversy in Britain.

There's no cap on the size of donations, though payments of $12,000 or more must be declared. Britain's political parties have been talking about reform for years with no agreement. Labour also takes big bucks from the trade unions. Christopher Kelly chairs an independent committee that advises the government on ethics. He says, unless there's reform, scandals over party funding will continue.

SIR CHRISTOPHER KELLY: As long as we have a system in which the financial survival of the parties depends upon a small number of very rich individuals or organizations, in the case of the Labour Party, then we're going to continue to have these sorts of stories time after time after time.

REEVES: And that, says Kelly, fundamentally damages the public's confidence in Britain's political system. Philip Reeves, NPR News, London.

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