David Cameron today faced demands for an independent inquiry into "cash for access" allegations after he confirmed he had hosted private meals at Downing Street and Chequers for wealthy individuals who had between them donated millions of pounds to the Conservative Party.
The Tories released a list of 12 donors who were invited with their wives and partners to four dinners in Downing Street since Mr Cameron's election in 2010. A second list of five donors invited for informal lunches at the PM's country residence Chequers was released later.
Mr Cameron had come under intense pressure after former Tory co-treasurer Peter Cruddas was caught on film telling undercover reporters that "premier league" gifts could secure meetings with ministers and influence policy.
He denied Mr Cruddas's claims that big donors' concerns were fed into a policy committee at Downing Street, and insisted that none of those who dined with him had been recommended by the former treasurer - who quit his post on Saturday, hours after the Sunday Times revealed his comments.
"None of these dinners were fundraising dinners and none of these dinners were paid for by the taxpayer. I have known most of those attending for many years," said the PM.
He announced that eminent lawyer and Tory peer Lord Gold would conduct a party inquiry into the affair. And he said that the party would in future release quarterly registers of significant donors invited to eat with him at official residences, as well as lists of those attending "Leader's Group" dinners for donors who give more than £50,000.
But Labour leader Ed Miliband dismissed the Gold inquiry as "a whitewash" and called for an independent probe by the PM's official adviser on ministerial interests Sir Alex Allan.
"This scandal speaks to the conduct and character of this Prime Minister and his Government," said Mr Miliband.
"Anything short of an independent inquiry will leave a permanent stain on the reputation of this Government and this Prime Minister."
The 12 dinner-party guests at Downing Street had between them given almost £18m to the Conservatives since Mr Cameron became leader, he said.
And in a clear reference to last week's announcement of a cut from 50p to 45p in the top rate of income tax on earnings over £150,000, he added: "I bet they did alright out of last week's Budget."
Mr Miliband accused the PM of showing "utter contempt" for the Commons by failing to attend the House to address MPs about the affair, instead sending Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude.
Mr Maude was almost drowned out by Labour shouts of "Where's Cameron?" as he delivered a statement to MPs just hours after he had dismissed the Cruddas allegations as "a bit of a nonsense" in a radio interview.
He accused Labour of a "shameful" role in the party funding saga, telling MPs that union barons who bankroll the party were able not only to influence policy but also to choose the leader.
Declaring that he will lead the Tory team in revived cross-party talks on party funding, Mr Maude said that Conservatives were ready to accept a cap on donations, but only if it applied not only to individuals and companies but to unions too - something Labour has resisted.
The Conservative Party said that Mr Cameron hosted a post-election "thank-you" dinner at 10 Downing Street on 14 July 2010 attended by a number of "significant" donors who had given the Tories at least £50,000 each.
They included JCB chairman Sir Anthony Bamford, who has personally donated £70,000 since Mr Cameron became leader while his company has given almost £1.7m; financier Michael Farmer, who has given around £2.5 million; hedge fund tycoon Michael Hintze, who gave more than £1.2m; Tory peer Lord Sainsbury of Preston Candover, who gave £1m; property developer Michael Freeman, who gave £380,000; and hedge fund chief executive Sir Paul Ruddock, who gave £520,000.
On 28 February last year, property tycoon and donor of more than £4m David Rowland attended a dinner in the flat, along with party co-chairman Lord Feldman.
On November 2 2011, Mr Cameron held a "social dinner for strong and long-term supporters of the party, with whom the PM has a strong relationship", including Mr Farmer, the banker and Tory donor Henry Angest and oil company boss Ian Taylor.
And on 27 February this year, he held a social dinner with former treasurer and major donor Michael Spencer, who gave more than £3 million through his company IPGL and £200,000 personally.
Mr Rowland and his wife had lunch at Chequers on 8 August 2010, while businessman Fares Fares, who has donated almost £60,000 to the Tories, had lunch in the Buckinghamshire country house on November 7 that year.
Current or former Tory treasurers who have had lunch with Mr Cameron at Chequers included Mr Spencer on 31 May 2010, Lord Ashcroft on 6 June 2010 and Howard Leigh on 6 February 2011 - all of whom have donated significant sums to the party - while party co-chairman Lord Feldman has visited the house on several occasions, said the Conservatives.
News Corporation chairman Rupert Murdoch, whose own meetings with politicians have come under intense scrutiny as a result of the News of the World hacking scandal, backed calls for an independent inquiry into the "cash for access" affair.
Writing on Twitter today, Mr Murdoch said: "Of course there must be a full independent inquiry on both sides. In great detail, and with consequences.
"Trust must be established. Without trust, democracy, and order will go."
Ed Miliband took the opportunity of the furore over donations and the angry response to last week's Budget to rally Labour troops at their weekly meeting.
In an unscheduled behind-closed-doors address to MPs and peers, a spokesman said he had told them it had been a "politically significant week".
"It shows the battle in politics is who is for the few and who is for the many."
The Prime Minister's project had "come to a crashing halt", he was reported to have said.
Labour said the addition of the names of Chequers guests to the list took the total they had given to the party since Mr Cameron became leader to more than £23m.
A list released by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg's office featured four dinners or lunches attended by major party donors at his official residence Chevening.
Aides to George Osborne said he had not entertained any major donors at his Downing Street residence.
However, Andrew Feldman, Simon Wolfson and Howard Leigh had been to Dorneywood for social events as part of wider groups.
The Conservative Party later attempted to shift the focus on to Labour, calling on former prime ministers Gordon Brown and Tony Blair to disclose donors whom they entertained.
MP Matthew Hancock, who has written to them urging them to allow publication of the information, said voters would "draw their own conclusions" if the details remained secret.
"We agree with the Labour leader that it is right to put this information in the public domain; that is why it has been published," he said in the letters.
"I am now writing to you to ask you to give permission for lists of the donors to the Labour Party who dined at No 10 and at Chequers, while you were prime minister, to be similarly released.
"Given Ed Miliband's insistence today, I am sure you will be willing to give this confirmation by return."
Mr Clegg, who is the lead minister on funding reform, said he wanted talks to begin as early as this week.
An initial meeting of two nominated representatives of each of the three main parties is expected to agree the way it will operate including whether it will be allowed to draw on information held by the civil service.
Mr Clegg, who is attending a conference in South Korea, said: "Controversy about how political parties are funded has affected all parties at one time or another.
"The system doesn't work. We need to fix it and fix it fast, and that's why I want to see cross-party talks start this week."
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