British scandal: Did Downing Street meals have donations on the side?
REPORTING FROM LONDON -- British Prime Minister David Cameron moved Monday to try to defuse an embarrassing scandal over a party official caught on videotape offering access to Cameron and other government honchos in exchange for big political donations.
Cameron insisted that no such transactions ever occurred, and the fundraiser who made the brazen pitch to reporters posing as potential donors has been forced to quit his post as the Conservative Party's treasurer.
But under heavy pressure from opposition lawmakers, Cameron's office issued details of three occasions on which he treated major donors to meals in his personal quarters at 10 Downing St., the prime minister's residence and office.
"None of these dinners were fundraising dinners, and none of these dinners were paid for by the taxpayer," said Cameron, who won Britain's top political job in May 2010. "I've known most of those attending for many years."
Aides also released information on meals Cameron hosted at the prime minister's country home, Chequers. The guest lists for the private functions in Downing Street and at Chequers include some of Britain’s richest people, among them bankers and industry magnates who have given millions of dollars to the Conservatives.
But Cameron and other Tory leaders brushed aside accusations that such donors were granted access or influence in direct exchange for political contributions. They also promised to launch an internal investigation into the revelations that have caused a stir reminiscent of the scandal surrounding overnight stays for big donors in the Lincoln Bedroom at the White House under President Clinton.
Unaware he was being recorded, Conservative Party treasurer Peter Cruddas told undercover journalists working for the Sunday Times that the bigger their donations, the higher up the government leaders with whom they would be allowed to rub elbows.
A contribution of 100,000 pounds (about $160,000) was good but not great, whereas "200 grand to 250 is premier league," Cruddas declared, borrowing a phrase from the world of professional soccer.
A gift that size, Cruddas said, would propel the donor to a seat at the dinner table with Cameron and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne and entitle the contributor to give feedback on policy "if you're unhappy about something."
In a raucous session in the House of Commons on Monday, Labor Party leader Ed Miliband excoriated Cameron for not appearing before lawmakers to vindicate himself.
"The prime minister is too ashamed to come to this house and explain his conduct," Miliband said. "Anything short of an independent inquiry will leave a permanent stain on this government."
Analysts said the "cash-for-access" scandal risked reinforcing the public impression that the Conservative Party is in the back pocket of monied interests.
Cruddas himself is a wealthy businessman whose big donations and fundraising efforts for the party helped get him appointed to the post of treasurer.
But he apparently never won the prize he offered to others: Cameron said Monday that Cruddas had never come to dinner at 10 Downing St.
-- Henry Chu
Photo: British Prime Minister David Cameron gives a speech Monday to the Alzheimer's Society on government funding for research on dementia. Credit: Mark Richards / Getty Images