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Auctioning Off Democracy

The Conservative Party’s cash-for-access culture is one of the neglected scandals of modern British politics, says Iain Overton

A Champagne bottle donated by Conservative Party Co-Chairman Oliver Dowden auctioned off at a charity fundraiser. Photo: Jay Rayner/Twitter

Auctioning Off Democracy

The Conservative Party’s cash-for-access culture is one of the neglected scandals of modern British politics, says Iain Overton

A Champagne bottle donated by Conservative Party Co-Chairman Oliver Dowden had been auctioned off (erroneously) as a “souvenir of Partygate” at a charity fundraiser, it emerged last week.

The charity that benefitted from the donated wine bottle, Hertfordshire Community Foundation (HCF), says that giving to it could not only “lower your tax bill” but will let it fund urgent concerns – such as Bishop’s Stortford Food Bank.

In 2020, HCF’s chairman said that, “since 2011 there has been a 96% increase in statutory homelessness and a 165% increase in homeless households in temporary accommodation” in the county.

It is no wonder that HCF needed the Prime Minister’s signed Champagne bottle to raise money to combat food shortages and homelessness. In April, the Trussell Trust said that its network had provided more than 2.1 million emergency parcels to people, from April 2021 to March 2022 – a 14% increase compared to the same period in 2019/20 – and double the number provided in 2014/15.

But this is not the only auction scandal to beset the Conservative Party recently.

At the 2022 Conservative Spring Lunch, it has been reported that one of the items auctioned was a private tour of the Victoria and Albert Museum by the chairman of the museum’s trustees, Nicholas Coleridge. Conservative Party co-chair Ben Elliot is also a trustee.

This is concerning. The legal guidance on being a trustee is that “you must avoid putting yourself in a position where your duty to your charity conflicts with your personal interests or loyalty to any other person or body”. The Code of Conduct for Board Members of Public Bodies also states: “In your public role, you should be, and be seen to be, politically impartial. You should not… hold a particularly sensitive or high-profile role in a political party. You should abstain from all controversial political activity.” 

The V&A did not respond to questions as to whether it thinks that political gifts associated with the museum, touted by its trustees, was in line with its rules of governorship.

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Networks of Power

Perhaps the deeper issue here does not lie at the door of the V&A or HCF, but rather at the long – and controversial – history of auctioneering within the Conservative Party.

It is a recent history filled with accusations of cash-for-access, funding by Russian oligarchs, and the wealth of arms dealers.

In 2021, a Winter Ball auction offered an hour’s access with Chancellor Rishi Sunak, which sold for £35,000; karaoke with Foreign Secretary Liz Truss went for £22,000; and dinner with Levelling-Up Secretary Michael Gove for £25,000. The event took place moments before Conservative MPs left to vote on the Government’s controversial £86,000 blanket cap on social care costs.

The same year, the Conservative Party auctioned off dinner dates with senior Cabinet members for £4,000. The Business Leaders’ Dinner, which took place in Manchester during the Conservative Party Conference, was promoted in an email where, for a donation, you could “place your preference of senior minister to host your table”.

In addition, this newspaper has revealed that Ann R Said – also known as Rosemary Said – gave the Conservative Party £45,000 in the form of an auction prize. She is married to Wafic Said, who brokered a multi-billion-pound arms deal between Saudi Arabia and the UK in the mid-1980s.

In 2020, the Conservative Black and White Ball – for which the auction is the main event – was partly organised by a businessman banned from City trading. Jay Rutland, whose father-in-law is Bernie Ecclestone, had been banned from trading in the City of London in 2012 over “market abuse”. The Financial Services Authority ruled that Rutland was not a “fit and proper person” with a lack of “honesty and integrity”.

In 2015, Conservative donor, James Lupton, reportedly donated a week-long trip for 24 people to his £56 million La Fortaleza estate on the Bay of Pollenca in Majorca. Lupton was later to be made a peer of the realm, which was fortunate for David Cameron as he was later to successfully lobby Lupton – the director of Lloyds Banking Group – to reverse the bank’s decision to withdraw support from Greensill Capital.

In 2014, Lubov Chernukhin – then wife to Vladimir Chernukhin, one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s former deputy finance ministers – paid £160,000 for a tennis match with Boris Johnson and David Cameron, who was Prime Minister at the time. The current Prime Minister later defended the match: Johnson denounced the “miasma of suspicion” on “all rich Russians in London”.

Lubov Chernukhin was later found to have been listed in 2006 as a director of a company secretly owned by a Russian oligarch close to Putin. She says she “does not recall consenting in writing” to being a director of Suleiman Kerimov’s firm.

She 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 to be one of several donors to have been granted access to Downing Street via a secret ‘advisory board’ – a little known collective of wealthy Conservative patrons granted exclusive access to power. 

The Conservative Party has for some time run a separate ‘Leaders’ Group’ dining society that gives elite donors exclusive access to party grandees.

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It goes on.

In 2013, the £28,000 offered for a Tory-auctioned portrait of Margaret Thatcher, bid by a company called Henley Concierge, was deemed by the Electoral Commission to be impermissible, as the company was ‘non-trading’. The money was given back. The ultimate owner of that company, Andrei Borodin, was the former president of the Bank of Moscow.

At the same event, a bottle of champagne signed by Margaret Thatcher was also auctioned off for £45,000 in a room of bankers, businesspeople and lobbyists jointly worth more than £11 billion.

Moreover, the politics of auctioneering has led to a souring of relationships when promises go unfulfilled.

One donor, Telecoms businessman Mohamed Amersi, is reportedly demanding £150,000 back after not being given the auction prizes that he bought – including a breakfast with Boris Johnson, a magic show by former Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt, and a Japanese meal with former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt.

Strangely, Amersi dived back into the Conservative fray last week, bidding on and winning a dinner for nine in a Green Park mansion with “four guests from the Westminster political scene” and a commemorative plate and a bottle of whisky signed by Margaret Thatcher, all for a total of £16,000. 

Conservative Party HQ is said to be furious – but perhaps not as furious as the wider electorate should be.

If the Conservative Party auction items were – as some have been – simply a hoodie signed by Sunak or diaries signed by Edwina Currie, this perhaps would have been palatable. Even a ride in Jacob Rees-Mogg’s Bentley is distanced, to a degree, from any accusation of money in exchange for access or influence.

But these scandals – and the sums of money involved – show a Conservative Party that has either little concern for the perception of cash-for-access or a marked disregard for due process or transparency.

Boris Johnson will almost certainly feel that his giving a bottle of Champagne for a charity that funds food banks is an act of altruism on his part – but it displays a blindness for those who rely on them and who will never be able to afford the sort of influence that is bought by Conservative patrons.

And, in this regard, that is the thing missing at these black-tie event auction wars – democratic accountability and, ultimately, decency.

This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.

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