Who pays the Tory Party piper?

Vladimir Putin and Boris Johnson at the International conference on Libya, 19 January 2020
Photo credit: Russian Presidential Executive Office, Creative Commons Attribution 4.0
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Large donations to the Conservative Party and the delayed publication of the Russia report are harming our democracy.

Politics costs money, lots of it. ‘Short money’ is the UK state’s attempt to fund our politics and ensure opposition to the government exists in our democratic system. The opposition political party receive £16k per seat and £33 per 200 votes. The leader of the opposition receives £700k and the Electoral Commission allocates £2m to parties to help them develop policies for inclusion in the election manifesto.

However, private donations from individuals and organisations are a different matter. In the 2019 general election, the Conservative Party received private donations totalling £19.4m, Labour £5.4m, the Liberal Democrats £1.3m, the Green Party £245,000 and the Scottish National Party just £25,000. These are considerable amounts of money and demonstrate that this is certainly not a level playing field.

The Conservative Party runs an annual ‘black and white’ ball in February. Around 700 attendees pay £15,000 per table. The party tries to place a cabinet minister on most tables; drinks include champagne and white burgundy. During the evening a series of auction lots are held in order to extract even more money from the faithful. Auction prizes this year included a night whisky tasting with Liz Truss, lunch with Zac Goldsmith, dinner at a Mayfair Club with Michael Gove, and a day with chancellor Rushi Sunak at Lords cricket ground, in a private box, for a one-day international between England and Australia.

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Russian donors, oligarchs and companies have invested £3.5m in the Conservative Party led by Boris Johnson. This comes after former Prime Minister Theresa May promised to distance her party from Russian money in the wake of the Salisbury poisonings in 2018. Since the arrival of Boris Johnson in September 2019, Conservative Party attitudes to Russian donations have changed somewhat.

Major Russian donors include Lubov Chernukhin. With donations totalling £1.6m she is the biggest female donor to any political party in UK history. Lubov is the wife of Russian one-time deputy minister of finance Vladimir Chernukhin. Lubov is now a British citizen, a pre-requisite for making political donations. She has made 48 cash donations to the Conservative Party over the past seven years. She most famously paid £160,000 to play tennis with Boris Johnson and David Cameron when Johnson was mayor of London and Cameron was prime minister. Lubov avoids publicity and does not do interviews.

Alexander Temerko, another prominent donor, is a former arms tycoon. He has gifted £1m to the Conservatives since gaining British citizenship in 2011. He presents himself as an opponent of Brexit and a dissident critic of Vladimir Putin, but a supporter of Boris Johnson. One of Temerko’s former business partners in Russia, Leonid Nevzlin, said of Temerko that he had long-standing ties with Russian security agencies, but refused to say if these ties were still active.

The much-delayed publication of the Russia report is a source of speculation and ammunition for the prime minister’s enemies. The report is known to look at a wide range of Russian activity including political interference in the UK. The intelligence security committee, who prepared the report, took evidence from a number of independent experts and from the intelligence agencies MI5, MI6 and GCHQ. Asked if he was sure that no Russian money was pulling strings in the British general election in December 2019, former Chancellor Sajid Javid said on the BBC Andrew Marr’s programme:

“I am as sure as I can be. I’m absolutely sure in terms of our own party and I am very confident about how we are funded and we are very transparent about that.”

Former Chancellor Sajid Javid, December 2019

That transparency is not immediately apparent when the facts are examined in any detail.

Prime Minister Johnson has not moved to establish a new intelligence and security committee since the general election, its longest break since it was established in 1994. This is the committee that will finally publish the Russia report. As the delay continues, speculation mounts that this is a deliberate ploy on behalf of the prime minister to bury bad news by avoiding publication.

The crucial question is why rich individuals, particularly of overseas origin, donate such large amounts of money to the Conservative Party in particular.

One of many calls on Twitter for the prime minister to #ReleaseTheRussiaReport

Getting Brexit done was Johnson’s mantra at the general election. Global Britain cannot afford to ask too many questions if it wants to retain its place as a major centre of world banking and money dealing. The National Crime Agency reckons that “many hundreds of billions of pounds” are rinsed through British Banks annually. To ensure the continuation of this sordid relationship, the Conservative Party must retain power, no matter what it takes. Cash donations help ensure Boris Johnson and his Rasputin-like henchman Dominic Cummings are running the show.

The government’s delay in publishing the Russia report was described by the chair of the intelligence security committee, Dominic Grieve, as “jaw dropping”. Boris Johnson has been widely condemned for the delay in its publication, with the strong implication being that it is simply an attempt to cover up the truth of Russian influence on UK politics and in particular the Tory Party.

There are many actions the government could take to address these concerns and restore confidence in the integrity of our political system. Johnson could appoint a chair for the ISC and publish the report immediately. The government could change the rules to limit all donations from any individual to, say, £5,000 – and could mandate that they be born in the UK. Similar restrictions could be applied to organisations, such that they be registered British companies, paying taxes in this country.

This would immediately bring a sense of natural justice to the issue of who can donate to – and potentially influence – UK political parties. But at present, only the Prime Minister Boris Johnson and members of the Conservative Party can do anything about this. Our future as a democracy is once again in their hands.

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