You might have thought it was all over but the saga of my case against the Sunday Times (“ST”) continues. It is becoming a bit like a Tolstoy novel. Since I last updated you another couple of chapters have been added. In my opinion the most recent development raises much wider and dare I say it profound questions for not just political parties but for those, particularly senior individuals involved in political fund raising. I believe this goes beyond my own personal position and is relevant to others – hence my observations and questions below.
As I reported after the judgement in the High Court in July 2013 the trial Judge found in my favour on my three assertions as to the meanings of the articles in the ST. Months later the ST applied for permission to appeal – in fact on the last day available to them. Permission was refused by one Court of Appeal Judge, who basically reiterated the trial Judge’s findings, but at a subsequent hearing, the Court of Appeal said the appeal could go ahead.
The appeal was heard before Christmas. This time a different set of Judges in the Court of Appeal have found in my favour on two out of the three assertions in my pleadings as to the libellous meanings of the ST articles and have awarded me damages. I am very pleased that the Court of Appeal also upheld the finding of malicious falsehood in relation to those two meanings. These related to the ST’s allegations about my approach to overseas donations and my alleged willingness to breach Electoral Law. These false allegations had the most serious implications for me. My third claim on the meaning of the articles related to access to and influence of senior members of Government. Although not supporting the findings in my favour on this point, it seems to me that the approach taken by the Judges to my third claim is potentially opening a Pandora’s Box!
Unlike in the earlier court hearings on this occasion the Judges said they ought to consider issues which are appropriate or not to the funding of political parties. To that end they referred to a book entitled, “The Funding of Political Parties by Professor Keith Ewing and Others (Routledge 2012 reported and commented on in the Cambridge Law Journal)”.
The Judges pointed out that the above book states that different considerations come into play when one is dealing with donations or funding which political institutions provide to political parties compared to individuals. They quote a line from the book which says that “donations from political organisations to which members subscribe may be seen as part of a democratic effort of a group of citizens to collectively influence politics”. But they then say they don’t comment on that distinction or address the different considerations (if any) that might apply between institutions and individuals. Instead the Court of Appeal chose to focus on individuals. The Judges soon thereafter say that on a number of occasions in the ST recording I had stated that “you cannot buy access to the Prime Minister and that donations do not entitle you to influence Government Policy”.
In spite of that statement from the Judges acknowledging my “health warnings” and no criminality or breaches of electoral law by me the Judges accepted the ST’s contention that what I had offered was “inappropriate, unacceptable and wrong”. Their view of the transcript was that I was offering influence and unfair advantage. It is a pity that, unlike the case before the trial judge, the nature of this appeal didn’t require either me, the two journalists or their editor being cross examined in open court by each of the QC’s.
Whilst lobbying is now being regulated donors are not in the same way. Yet donating basically affords a different route to lobbying. All main parties with their -in effect- leader’s clubs provide access to different levels of their party determined by the size of the donation. So in similar actions will Judges now look at the wider issue of the funding of political parties from different sources and how should that be weighed up? They seemed to imply that there is a distinction between the types of donor where it is promoted as leading to access to senior politicians (even though they didn’t say what it was). But is there now not a danger that a distinction could be developing between how donations are viewed depending on whether one is a political institution or say a trade union and an individual. Is there going to be a presumption that the former is generally appropriate, acceptable and right and the latter, particularly when from individuals, is generally “inappropriate, unacceptable and wrong”.
Can it be right that it is acceptable for a large trade union donor through its access to senior labour party members to push for a tightening of say employment laws but not right for a large employer entrepreneur by being a substantial donor to put a case for their relaxation to senior conservative party members? And in deciding this question who is the right person or persons to say so and what different considerations, if any, need to be taken into account? I am not suggesting that these issues or questions are not legitimate but I am left with the clear impression that this is getting into the realms of public policy.
The most recent chapters have not been all grim. There have been moments throughout this process, and not without a touch of a little irony, which have brought a smile to my face. It is clearly stated in the Conservative Party’s Leader’s Group brochure, signed by the Prime Minister, that Leader’s membership will lead to you meeting him. Is that access for cash? Is it “inappropriate unacceptable and wrong“, unless he just talks about the weather.
So for future budding Treasurers of any political Party be warned!!! There is a real risk that even when, as in my case, not acting contrary to any laws and making numerous “health warnings “ in connection with promoting various levels of party approved membership and benefits for donors one can end up on the wrong end of articles from some sections of the press who have their own agenda. Although my two most serious claims have been upheld becoming a potential football in a wider political / legal debate, about what in effect is a policy matter, as to when is access “inappropriate, unacceptable and wrong” doesn’t particularly enthral me.
I will leave it to the press and the politicians to fight out the rights and wrongs of donating to political parties and what constitutes access for cash and when does that step into the realms of lobbying. I would rather stick to business where the rules are clear and there are no political agendas. I am also very happy to be involved in philanthropy through the Peter Cruddas Foundation. So despite all the turmoil over the last three years, I am happy and fulfilled and my business is thriving and my foundation is benefitting.
As always thank you for your support.
Dr Peter Cruddas
Chief Executive, CMC Markets