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Black Ties and Dark Money: The Conservative Cash-for-Access Machine

As the party’s biggest donors come out fighting for Boris Johnson, Sam Bright and Max Colbert inspect how the Conservatives continue to sell democracy to the highest bidder

Fake money with the face of Boris Johnson. Photo: Kirsty O’Connor/PA

Black Ties & Dark MoneyThe Conservative Cash-for-Access Machine

As the party’s biggest donors come out fighting for Boris Johnson, Sam Bright and Max Colbert inspect how the Conservatives continue to sell democracy to the highest bidder

As Boris Johnson faced a no confidence vote among Conservative MPs, a statement from 23 of the party’s biggest donors urged it to stick with the Prime Minister.

The close relationship between the Conservative Party and big money donors has long been a feature of British political life – though the full scale of the party’s economic dependence on these individuals is shielded from public view.

In particular, the party has in recent years increasingly used auctions as a means of fundraising – offering access to senior party figures or memorabilia – in exchange for handsome sums of cash.

The details of these gifts are not logged by the Electoral Commission, the body responsible for recording political fundraising. They are instead categorised as ‘non-cash’ donations, with little additional information provided.

As a result, the Byline Intelligence Team has catalogued the details of the auctions that have filtered into the media. It found that, since 2009, the Conservative Party has earned at least £3.4 million from individual auction items – with the figure likely to be much higher.

This Conservatives’ gathering of funds in this way hasn’t gone without controversy.

As recently reported, a private tour of London’s Victoria & Albert Museum by the institution’s chair, Nicholas Coleridge, recently went up for auction at the 2022 Conservative Party Spring Lunch. One of the V&A’s trustees, Ben Elliot, is also a Conservative Party co-chair – raising concerns that the gift represented a breach of government guidelines and risked undermining the impartiality of a public institution to raise money for political purposes.

Major donor and Telecoms mogul Mohamed Amersi also recently demanded the repayment of £200,000 in donations for auction prizes after claiming that he never received them, while criticising the party for not affording him – as a “significant donor” – the “courtesy and respect” he believes he is entitled to given his contributions. 

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Behind the scenes, Amersi believes that he is being punished for exposing a culture of “access capitalism”, allegedly presided over by Elliot in his official role. Amersi claims, as many others have speculated for years, that privileged relationships are afforded to those with vast sums of money.

Take, for example, the Leader’s Group – a collection of wealthy Conservative donors who pay £50,000 a year for private dinners, lunches and drinks receptions with the Prime Minister and other senior Tory figures, including leading Cabinet ministers. According to openDemocracy, Boris Johnson has been a regular attendee of Leader’s Group summits in recent years.

The Leader’s Group has been such a goldmine for the Conservatives that it recently extended its offering. The party created a new ‘Advisory Board’, allowing privileged access to Downing Street to those who pay £250,000 or more.

That’s not to mention the network of opaque unincorporated associations with often secret memberships, which have donated tens of millions to the party. 

There is no suggestion of wrongdoing on the part of the donors – they are merely taking advantage of a system instituted and overseen by the Conservatives. However, these flows of money do raise serious questions about transparency. Meetings between donors and ministers are not recorded and concerns remain as to whether the ruling party is allowing undue influence to be bought by its biggest donors.

As Johnson himself quipped in 2016 at the opening of a gallery displaying the work of Downing Street photographer Andrew Parsons:

“His mean, moody, magnificent studies of… whatever… Dave and Ed Llewellyn preparing a speech on Europe or something like that. They’re auctioned, aren’t they? They are auctioned for tens of thousands of pounds at Conservative fundraising balls. And I ask you, what do they think, those oligarchs in Russia, when they reach into their pockets and they lash out for these? Do they think that they’re buying influence in the Tory party, my friends? No! [audible laughter] Do they think they’re buying friends in high places? No! 

“What are they buying?… They’re buying an original, 100% authentic, Parsons, to hang with the Picasso… on the wall of their super yacht.” 

An Information Vacuum

The Conservative Party’s yearly Black and White Ball is perhaps its most notorious fundraising event, allowing the wealthiest in society to rub shoulders with Cabinet ministers and MPs – but only a fraction of the spending can be tracked through public sources.

Full membership lists are rarely reported – often attendees are filmed from outside, photographed entering and leaving by persistent tabloid journalists. Some of the smaller events are rumoured to host only a few hundred, with occasions such as the Black and White Ball typically thought to seat up to 1,200 people. 

Then, there’s the wildly varying price ranges for attendance, with guests paying between £400 and £1,000 each for entry and as much as £15,000 for a large table seated alongside Cabinet-level officials.

The auction lots – the main event of the evenings – are revealed in a piecemeal way to the public. Back in 2015, BuzzFeed journalists were able to get their hands on one of the pamphlets for the Black and White Ball, which featured more than 80 different lots, some of which have been reported to have fetched as much as £220,000. The event itself was expected to have raised around £3 million

From the scant accurate attendance and auction figures provided by prior reporting, the Byline Intelligence Team has mapped a bare minimum of £8.3 million raised by the Black and White Ball events since 2009 – in both ticket sales and the flogging of items/perks. However, this number almost certainly falls dramatically short of the true figure.

The prizes up for grabs range drastically in price and often include highly peculiar items, including personalised pieces of memorabilia from Conservative politicians or iconic trinkets from the old party heydays. In 2014, one item up for auction was a jar of honey, which sold for £20,000. It was reportedly made by bees kept by then minister Hugo Swire. 

Other lots have included a collection of budgets signed by former Chancellor George Osborne, a set of £60,000 gold and silver versions of the Brexit Day commemorative coin (with a signed copy of the Withdrawal Agreement), and a bust of former Prime Minister David Cameron – bought for £90,000 by Ukrainian oil tycoon Alexander Temerko

A whole range of prizes have granted one-on-one access with Conservative politicians, such as the chance to play tennis with Boris Johnson and David Cameron – snapped up by Conservative mega-donor Lubov Chernukhin to the tune of £160,000.

Chernukhin, a Russian-born banker and wife of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s former deputy finance minister Vladimir Chernukhin, is the largest female donor in Conservative history, having given more than £2.2 million to the party. She is also a member of the Downing Street Advisory Board.

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Similarly, wealthy bidders have paid to attend a dinner at the “spiritual home” of the Conservatives, the Carlton Club, with current Health and Social Care Secretary Sajid Javid and his wife; as well as dinner at the home of Michael Gove; a ride in Jacob Rees-Mogg’s Bentley; lunch with former Justice Minister Robert Buckland in a prison restaurant; a “10k iron man endeavour” with ex-party leader Iain Duncan Smith; and the experience of flying in a Lancaster Bomber with Grant Shapps.

The costs are often reflective of political stature, with the party fetching £135,000 for dinner with Theresa May when she was Prime Minister – also bought by Chernukhin.

Signed bottles of alcohol are commonplace, with a bottle of whiskey signed by former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once fetching £45,000. In recent weeks, one such gift from Conservative co-chair Oliver Dowden to Hertfordshire Community Foundation was the subject of controversy, accused of being a “souvenir of Partygate”.

More standard but still flashy trinkets include Rolex watches, Selfridges gift cards and cars – often contributed by party donors themselves. Experiences have also included pheasant shooting on the estate of Thatcher-era arms broker Wafic Said (for £80,000), and a weekend stay in the 17th Century La Fortaleza estate of investment banker James Lupton (for £220,000).

When asked about the nature of these fundraisers, a Conservative spokesperson said that “all donations to the Conservative Party are properly and transparently declared to the Electoral Commission, published by them, and comply fully with Electoral Commission rules”. 

Electoral Commission rules state that donations from a single source totalling more than £7,500 have to be declared and published on the Commission’s website. However, the donor is allowed to deduct the cost of putting on the event from the total (many of these events are organised by Conservative Party loyalists, or hosted by Conservative-linked groups such as the United and Cecil Club), and so the purchase of a table for £10,000 for an event that cost more than £2,500 to host, could effectively be hidden from public view.

Also, if a donor buys an entire table and is reimbursed by others seated at it, that is also deductible from the final cost – though all donors would still need to be classed as ‘permissible’ under UK electoral rules in order to be able to purchase a ticket. Oversight for checking permissibility, of course, falls to the party itself.

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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