The UK Conservative party is struggling for funds during the coronavirus crisis and is eyeing plans to reduce staffing levels at its central office in Westminster.
Senior Tories told the Financial Times that Boris Johnson’s party was facing a “massive downsizing” of its operations due to a combination of economic uncertainty, plans to decentralise operations and the typical drop off following a general election.
A senior Conservative party figure said: “CCHQ [Conservative Campaign Headquarters] is really struggling for cash at the moment and they’re looking at making lots of people redundant, not even furloughing them.”
One influential donor said he had been approached by the party in recent weeks to raise funds to keep CCHQ afloat, but questioned whether it was necessary.
“I told them that it makes no sense at this point. They should freeze all campaigning and re-engage for the May 2021 elections sometime in September,” the individual said. Another well-placed Tory confirmed “donations had dried up” since the lockdown began in March.
One of the party’s fundraisers said there was also disquiet among donors due to the delay in appointments to the House of Lords. “Boris promised peerages to the likes of Peter Cruddas and Michael Spencer, yet there’s been no sign of them. There’s a bit of coolness towards him right now.”
Party officials are also expecting their annual conference in Birmingham to be moved online, following the decision by the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties to shift to virtual gatherings due to the pandemic. “It feels inevitable that conference will be cancelled and it’ll cost the party dearly,” said one official. “One of our main sources for fundraising for the year is going to be wiped out.”
A Conservative spokesperson said: “At present, planning for the party conference is continuing.” They added: “We will keep this under review in light of the outbreak of coronavirus. Any decisions taken will be guided by the latest science and medical advice, and government guidance.”
According to the Electoral Commission, the party received £37.6m in donations in the three months to last year’s election, a significant increase from the run-up to the 2017 and 2015 elections. Figures for 2020 have yet to be released but they are expected to be lower.
A spokesperson for the party said it was “not unusual” for donations to be “significantly lower” following a general election. “While everyone has had to adapt normal routines to deal with the coronavirus, fundraising continues as usual,” the individual said.
Following the party’s 2019 election campaign, the Tories planned to scale down the party’s headquarters on Matthew Parker Street in Westminster and set up a new office in one of the “red wall” areas it won for the first time in the north and midlands of England.
Ben Elliot, who was appointed co-chairman of the party by Mr Johnson last summer, is overseeing the transformation of the party’s machine, along with co-chair Amanda Milling. Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s senior adviser, is supportive of plans to scale down the Westminster office.
The party has also culled its vice-chairs, MPs appointed to boost the party’s public profile. The roles, introduced by former prime minister Theresa May, came with an annual salary of £10,000. Mr Johnson decided to discontinue nearly all of these positions as part of his plans to streamline the party.
One donor added that he believed the party needed to reduce its staffing levels immediately due to the pandemic. “The problem is not that they plan to let people go but the fact that they haven’t already . . . Elliot’s strategy of continuing fully staffed through the lockdown doesn’t make any sense.”
No staff at Conservative HQ have been furloughed since the shutdown, and a spokesperson for the party denied it was planning a major number redundancies among its staff in Westminster.
The spokesperson said: “As has already been reported, CCHQ undertook a party review and restructure at the start of the year — again entirely normally following a general election campaign — but claims that a significant number of redundancies are planned are simply not true.”