Conservative Party Dodges QuestionsAbout Vetting of Russian-Linked Donors
Max Colbert reports on the unwillingness of Boris Johnson’s party to explain how it audits its benefactors
Concerns have been raised about the vetting process for donors of political parties, as the Conservative Party in particular avoids growing questions about its reliance on Russian-linked money.
Speaking to the BBC yesterday, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss explained how “everyone who donates [to the Conservative Party] is on the British electoral register. They are fully vetted”.
She was responding to questions about a photo of herself, Conservative Party MP Andrea Leadsom and former Prime Minister Theresa May with elite party donor Lubov Chernukhin, the former banker whose husband Vladimir Chernukhin is Russia’s former deputy finance minister under Russian President Vladimir Putin.
But exactly how donors are vetted remains opaque.
The procedure is dependent on each political party’s rules and not an external body such as the Electoral Commission. Indeed, a spokesperson for the elections watchdog told Byline Times that the political party in receipt of donations is responsible for conducting permissibility checks on potential contributions – based on guidelines set by the Commission.
According to the Commission’s guidelines, it is “the legal responsibility of a regulated donee when receiving a donation to take all reasonable steps to satisfy themselves that the source of a donation is permissible within the relevant rules”.
It adds that “on receipt of a donation, a regulated donee should decide whether or not there is any reason why the donation should be immediately refused”.
Whether a donor is permissible relates to if they are listed on the Electoral Register or Companies House – but the guidelines do not mention any requirements in terms of national security.
Donations from purely foreign sources are not allowed by the Electoral Commission, but donors may be citizens or company owners in multiple jurisdictions, as long as one of those jurisdictions is the UK.
A spokesperson for the Prime Minister told lobby journalists that the Conservative Party was “not going to get into” what checks are in place regarding donors, adding that there is the “necessary due diligence”.
Independent bodies have repeatedly called on the Government to strengthen the powers of the Electoral Commission, to increase transparency around donations – and to ramp up punishments for those who break the rules.
However, the Government’s Elections Bill proposes to make it easier for tax exiles and non-domiciled individuals to make political donations – while potentially eroding the independence of the Commission.
Ian Lucas – a former Labour MP, member of Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee and author of Digital Gangsters – told Byline Times: “Russian interference was found in US politics and identified in the UK the cross-party DCMS and [Intelligence and Security Committee] reports on disinformation.
“Independent bodies like the Electoral Commission and Information Commissioner’s Office have called repeatedly for years now for new laws to protect us against foreign interference. You have to ask why this Government has refused to take action while, at the same time, receiving enormous donations?
“The Conservative’s response has been, incredibly, to try to limit the powers of the Electoral Commission who have had the temerity to highlight the problem.”
Labour MP Chris Bryant – chair of Parliament’s Committee on Standards – echoed these concerns. “One of the problems is the Conservative Party is presently saying they do due diligence on people they take money from,” he told Channel 4 News. “There is no way of doing due diligence. No political party has the powers to investigate where somebody’s money is hidden, or whether it was ill gotten in Russia or not.”
The Conservative Party did not respond to Byline Times’ request for comment on the nature of its internal vetting procedure for permissible donations.
From Russia With Love
Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has led to the Conservatives coming under increasing pressure to return millions in donations from Russian interests.
When asked in the House of Commons about Russian money donated to the Conservative Party, Boris Johnson said: “We do not raise money from Russian oligarchs… we raise money from people who are registered to vote on the UK register of interests.”
Investigations by Byline Times and The Citizens have revealed that, since 2012, the Conservative Party has received more than £4.8 million in donations from seven wealthy Russian benefactors. There is no evidence to suggest that any of these donors have done anything wrong or have present day links to the Putin regime.
Donors include Lubov Chernukhin, who has given more than £2.1 million to the Conservatives, making her the largest female donor in recent political history. The Sunday Times recently revealed her as one of several donors to have been granted access to Downing Street via a secret ‘advisory board’ – a little known collective of wealthy individuals granted exclusive access to power.
A second elite donor is Alexander Temerko, who has given more than £1.6 million to the Conservatives, including to 36 constituency parties. Temerko has donated both as an individual and via his companies, is a member of the elite Conservative Leaders’ Group dining society which gives elite donors exclusive access to party grandees, and counts Johnson as a personal friend. He has been a public critic of Putin, having fled Russia in 2005, although he was accused of having ties to Russian intelligence – allegations he has consistently denied.
Then there’s Evgeny Lebedev, recently ennobled by Johnson as Baron Lebedev of Hampton in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames and of Siberia in the Russian Federation. The title gives him a seat in the House of Lords. Lebedev and Johnson have enjoyed a close friendship, with the newspaper Lebedev owns, the Evening Standard, backing Johnson in the 2012 London mayoral race. His father, Alexander Lebedev, was a former KGB agent.
Liz Truss rightly warned that “that we don’t conflate people of Russian heritage and Russian background with people who are close to the Putin regime”. There is no evidence to suggest any Russian Conservative Party donors are tied to the regime, are assets to the Kremlin or allies of Putin.
But the multiple links between Johnson’s Conservative Party and Russian money means that he risks being compromised when it comes to taking a hardline stance against Russia’s influence in the UK.
Truss has repeatedly asserted that “nothing is off the table” when it comes to sanctions against Russia. “Without prejudice, we will target anybody who is of interest in terms of the Russian regime,” she has said.
While the Government has promised more sanctions after its “first barrage”, opposition leaders have warned that its plans do not go far enough to stifle the flow of Kremlin-linked money flooding into the UK.
It is well established that London has become a haven for Russian money, oligarch wealth and high society, with security experts accusing the capital of becoming a “laundromat” for dirty cash. It is estimated that 150 properties worth an estimated £1.5 billion, mostly luxury homes in central London, are owned by Russian nationals with Kremlin ties.
In the wake of the invasion of Ukraine, the Home Office cancelled the ‘golden’ tier one visa scheme that fast-tracked wealthy individuals with citizenship in exchange for a £2 million investment in the UK. Two hundred Russian millionaires bought their way into the UK with these controversial “golden visas” in the seven years since the Government pledged to stop corrupt oligarchs exploiting the system – while the number of these ‘investor’ visas issued to wealthy Russians recently reached a three-year high. The scheme has been widely accused of facilitating money laundering.
“Many recipients of Russian money are now in the Cabinet,” Ian Lucas told Byline Times. “The whole story stinks.”