THE RIGHT MOVES
The host is a generous party donor, with enviable business success behind him and the Jacobean castle to show for it. The food is exquisite, good wine plentiful and company diverse (aforesaid donor has a clutch of glamorous daughters, including a supermodel). A former Chancellor of the Exchequer holds forth about the eurozone, joined by a Jardine’s bigwig with a spouse from a Tory prime ministerial dynasty and a renegade member of Michael Gove’s team.
It is the perfect Tory country house weekend, but for one factor: Stuart Wheeler has long stopped handing out spare millions to the Conservative Party. Since 2011 he has been one of the main donors to Ukip, donating some £360,000 in the past two years, and was until recently the party’s treasurer. The march of the Faragistas may scare Conservatives (and to a lesser extent blue-collar Labour) with their earthy appeal to disaffected voters. Less noted is the extent to which the party has steadily peeled away support and donors from wealthy sorts who would once have helped swell the Tory war chest.
For an outfit that likes to boast of its affinity with the ordinary Joe or Joanne and their frustration with political elites, Ukip has quietly been extending its charm offensive into the sisal-carpeted dens of the City, garnering funds and support from the sort of chaps (and it is still mainly chaps) who would once have rocked up at the Black and White ball to josh with Dave and dance with Sam Cam and left a discreetly large donation in their wake.
Betting on Nigel
Wheeler, founder of the IG Index spread-betting company and an impressive gambler himself (he was once banned from Caesars Palace and placed on a blacklist of those deemed too much of a liability to the house), gave £5 million to the Conservative Party during the 2001 election campaign: the single largest donation on record. A decade later he had absconded to Ukip. Tory Central Office claimed an amicable parting, though Wheeler remembers ‘being ousted by fax’.
Their loss was Nigel Farage’s gain. A frequent guest at Wheeler’s Kent home, Chilham Castle, Farage once enlivened an evening’s challenge to distinguish a vintage champagne from a Château Sainsbury’s, waving away abject failure by noting that the ‘beer and fags’ might have distorted his palate.
The other main figure aiding Ukip’s electoral tin-rattle is Paul Sykes, a Yorkshire businessman and former Tory constituency chairman, who made money out of reconditioning buses and property development. A spikier figure than Wheeler, Sykes says he can’t stand shopping and doesn’t give Christmas presents, but he has nonetheless shown a generous side to Ukip, funding its election posters in the European elections and donating some £4 million to the cause overall.
Besides such major givers, the Farage fundraising drive has attracted a host of other financial scions who are forking out substantial amounts, often to send a disgruntled message to David Cameron and George Osborne. They include Lord Hesketh, a serial junior minister under Margaret Thatcher and a former Tory party treasurer.
Friends, including the Daily Mail columnist Simon Heffer, say Hesketh’s motivation is frustration at the sacrifice of parliamentary powers to Europe and the state of the coalition, with the Lib Dems ‘chipping away at what the Tories are trying to achieve’. Other former senior members of Team Maggie suspect it is a result of bitter infighting among the Tories about how to handle Lords reform: Hesketh lost his seat there when hereditary peers shed the automatic right to sit in the upper chamber.
In truth, it is often hard to separate high principle from payback time when it comes to the appeal of Ukip to the very rich. Charlie Brooks, the racehorse trainer and husband of Rebekah Brooks who has reportedly been toying with a candidacy, might fit this category. More broadly, a group of people not given to compromises was never going to be happy with a party that did not win an overall majority, nor with a lengthy tango about Britain’s relationship with institutional Europe.
For some, there are strong overtones of ‘look-backery’ to the glory days of Lady Thatcher waving handbags and the Bruges speech. For others, there’s a whiff of Jimmy Goldsmith’s Referendum Party — and a delight in being anti-establishment while still maintaining the trappings of solid wealth and status.
The more serious implication for Cameron trying to hold his fissiparous ranks together is that a good number of prominent City figures no longer feel they have to toe a Europe-friendly line. It cuts a bit more of a dash on Jermyn Street this autumn to be hastening off to drinks with Farage than to a worthy pro-EU shindig.
And the new breed of Ukip-backers is high-profile. It includes Christopher Mills, a co-founder of JO Hambro Capital Management and previously a donor to his local Sussex Conservative association. Like Robin Birley, owner of the velvety-swish 5 Hertford Street club, he has lately given £50,000. (The Tory-Ukip money split often divides posh families — Birley’s half-brother, Zac Goldsmith, is a Tory MP.)
One of the most galling flirtations of Mammon with Team Nigel comes in the form of Crispin Odey, the ebullient hedge-funder. When Odey hosted an evening at his Mayfair office to give Farage a platform to make his pitch to the money men in 2013, City Tories were in a quandary over whether to go along and enjoy an evening of fine white Burgundy and Nigel-flirtation. In the event, plenty of them turned up.
Odey has since made a shrewd move on the political chessboard. Instead of giving directly to Ukip, he has instead made a £9,000 donation to Jacob Rees-Mogg, the iconoclastic Tory Somerset MP who has called for a pact between the Tories and Ukip. This small but fervent group might be called the Ukip/Tory bi-curious.
Other funders, such as Anglo-Sino’s Stephen Hill (Spear’s economics editor, by chance), fundamentally think that the EU does not help or support innovative investment and want to use their donation to make a policy point. Anglo-Sino, Hill says, found that ‘EU regulation was just dumped on top of UK regulation with no forethought’ because ‘EU regulation is all about quoted markets, not unquoted’. He isn’t up for a Cameron referendum because it would still take several years for the UK to leave the EU in the event of a ‘No’ vote, ‘by which time the City will have been well and truly castrated’.
Finally I ask Farage, amid a couple of large glasses of Verdicchio (he’s fine with European wines — his way of helping out the indebted economies) and several Rothmans on his side of the table, what his appeal to financial high-fliers might boil down to. He says they are ‘fed up with a relentless blizzard’ of regulation coming from Brussels and no longer trust those ‘elastic Tories, Dave and George and whoever’ to fight for them.
Converts on that score include Andy Brough at Schroders and Andrew Perloff of Panther Securities. One of the big shifts since the party’s advance in the European and local elections is that fewer people are coy about their Ukip habit. Farage says that many donors have chosen to remain under the £7,500 cut-off, above which the donor must be named to the Electoral Commission (in practice, many get round this by having large and apparently generous families).
Many of his donors, he adds, fear being on the wrong side of a pro-EU City lobby, or unspecified reprisals against their businesses (I can’t quite figure out what, but it’s a very Ukip thing to mutter about vague threats which we cannot entirely define).
It surely helps that, beyond the populist image, Mr Farage is no oik. When not having a bash at Romanians or EU bureaucrats, he comes across as the rather polite product of Dulwich College that he is, musing about his own days in the City pre-Big Bang. His father, a stockbroker of the old school, deemed that ‘a disaster’ because it would end long lunches. Farage says he loved the energy of the Big Bang days at the time, ‘though my dad was sadly right about the lunches’.
He still likes the company of the money-men, he ruminates. Luckily for Nigel, quite a few of them have taken a shine to him too.
Political donations by party in the first quarter of 2014 (Electoral Commission data)
Conservatives (+80 per cent year-on-year)
Labour (-19 per cent)
Liberal Democrats (+24 per cent)
UKIP (+418 per cent)