Lord Feldman, the Conservative chairman and close friend of David Cameron, has been accused of undermining the party’s commitment to neutrality in the EU referendum by helping to raise funds for the in campaign.
Steve Baker, the MP who chairs Conservatives for Britain, which is linked to the out campaign, said that he found Feldman’s activities troubling and that the revelation strengthened the case for ministers to be allowed a free vote in the referendum.
Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Baker said: “Lord Feldman, our chairman, has confirmed to me that he has directed donors to give money to the pro-EU BSE [Britain Stronger in Europe] campaign in a personal capacity and in his spare time.
“He also tells me that he will point people in the direction of the Vote Leave campaign, but they are yet to receive a referral from our party chairman.”
Baker added: “Lord Feldman is a member of the political cabinet. His fundraising for BSE undermines the government’s policy of seeking real reform before deciding how to vote. Now he has admitted this new part-time role, shouldn’t the prime minster allow other cabinet members to help Vote Leave in their spare time?”
Baker’s decision to target Feldman follows a complaint he made in November about the Conservative party’s deputy chairman, Stephen Gilbert, having a part-time job with Populus, a polling firm working for BSE. Baker said this was a conflict of interest, given the party’s neutrality in the referendum campaign; Gilbert stood down as deputy chairman on Monday.
Feldman, who took over as sole chair of the Conservative party after the general election, having previously been a co-chair with Grant Shapps, is already facing calls to resign over claims he turned a blind eye to bullying in the party’s youth wing.
The Conservative party insisted that Feldman was not actively fundraising for the in campaign, and that he was just putting donors in touch with the campaigns they might want to support. “Donors will call Lord Feldman to ask how to support both the in and out campaigns,” a party spokesman said.
“Lord Feldman will simply direct them to the relevant people on the campaigns. It is up to the individual donors themselves if they then chose to contact or support either campaign.”
Although David Cameron and his government are almost certain to recommend a vote to remain in the EU once his renegotiation is complete, the Conservative party has decided to remain neutral. Usually, party organisations strongly support the policies of ministers, but with polls suggesting more than two-thirds of Conservative members intend to vote to leave the EU, it was decided that trying to use the party machine to campaign for an in vote would prove too divisive.
The row erupted as Lord Lawson, the former chancellor, became the latest senior Conservative to say that Cameron should give his ministers a free vote when the referendum takes place.
Speaking to the Daily Mail, Lawson, who is president of Baker’s Conservatives for Britain group, said: “It would clearly be sensible in terms of party management to allow cabinet ministers to speak out on both sides once the date for the referendum is set – not least to enable the Conservative party to reunite easily once the referendum is over, whatever the result.
“That is what Wilson decided in 1975 and he was right. He may have been a bad prime minister, but he knew about party management.”
Cameron’s EU renegotiation is likely to wrap up in February, when he is expected to commit himself to campaigning for an in vote in a referendum in the summer or early autumn.
He wants ministers to support the government’s position, but some members of the cabinet are so opposed to EU membership they seem certain to resign if they are not allowed a free vote so that they can campaign for the out camp.
Cameron is currently resisting pressure to allow a free vote, but his final decision will depend on whether he believes the damage caused by ministerial resignations would outweigh the advantage of having the government seem united.
This article was written by Andrew Sparrow Political correspondent, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 22nd December 2015 10.03 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010