Money talks. Or perhaps more to the point, money gets heard. We know this to be the case in British politics by now, which is why stories that arguably should shock – like the weekend’s allegations that Conservative party chair Ben Elliot runs a secretive club of big Tory donors who are given direct access to the prime minister and chancellor – increasingly elicit little more than shrugs. Well, what do you think people give the government money for, exactly?
But even for the politically jaded, the notion that access to the future king can allegedly be bought feels startling. The telecoms millionaire Mohamed Amersi says he was invited to a private dinner with Prince Charles – who is married to Elliot’s aunt, the Duchess of Cornwall – after several years of paying an annual £15,000 fee to belong to the most exclusive tier of Elliot’s private business venture, the concierge service Quintessentially.
The company specialises in supplying the super-rich with the sort of things people start asking for when they already have everything they could possibly need: dinner on a floating iceberg, say, or a kickabout with a Premier League footballer. But according to Amersi – whose recent falling-out with the Conservative party’s Middle East interest group is producing all manner of juicy stories – it also offers the kind of introduction to the heart of the British establishment he would have struggled to secure otherwise.
“Unless you have somebody like him who opens these doors for you, it’s not possible, it’s not so easy,” he told the Sunday Times, explaining that the top tier of Quintessentially membership is the one where “we were invited to be exposed to the establishment”, from royalty to Downing Street. Amersi, who went on to donate to the prince’s charities and become a director of one of them, calls this system “access capitalism”: “You get access, you get invitations; you get privileged relationships if you are part of the setup, and where you are financially making a contribution to be part of that setup.”
Elliot has, it should be said, insisted that he does not “sell access” to Prince Charles, and says that he introduced Amersi to his uncle only because the businessman wanted to make a donation to the royal’s charitable work. Elliot’s company, his political work and his charitable fundraising are, he has suggested, separate entities. Yet the fact that Amersi apparently moved seamlessly between all three worlds raises disturbing questions about just how separate they can ultimately be.
You can certainly see how this kind of elite networking could work out beautifully for all concerned. Prince Charles could potentially get a steady supply of donors to his charities, recommended by his nephew, without having to ask for anything. Self-made millionaires secure entry into the most elite social circles, with associated bragging rights.
Elliot, the fixer with a hotline to everyone who matters in contemporary Britain, ends up with a brilliant business model and a reputation for being invaluable. The only loser is public trust in the integrity of the British political and constitutional system.
As the man who will one day be king, Prince Charles’s position carries with it both weighty responsibilities and the potential for considerable personal influence, in public and behind the scenes. It took a 10-year legal battle for the Guardian to secure the release of the “black spider memos” – a cache of letters sent by the prince to the prime minister and other government departments during the Blair years, which gained their nickname from the difficulty of reading the royal’s handwriting.
Once published, the memos showed the prince to be a formidable lobbyist, badgering ministers privately on pet causes – from alternative medicines to the replacement of Lynx helicopters and the alleged mistreatment of farmers by supermarkets.
But most of Charles’s conversations with politicians, before and since, remain hidden behind a veil of secrecy. He operates in a world with little transparency and no systematic means of tracking his interventions on public policy, where we are all expected simply to take it on trust that he is impeccably advised – and appropriately protected – by those around him.
The Prince of Wales is said to take a dim view of being linked to the “cash for access” story, regarding himself as being dragged through the mud of a political row that has nothing to do with him. But so long as Elliot retains a foot in both royal and political worlds, the two risk becoming intertwined. Without greater transparency about who the prince meets, what is discussed, how access is granted or influence wielded, public unease can only grow.