Sam Bright explores the facts and the mysteries surrounding Boris Johnson’s latest fundraising bash

Conservative politicians last night engaged in an act for which they have become renowned in recent times: partying.

The Conservative Party’s annual summer soiree was hosted at London’s prestigious Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), where senior ministers mingled with those who could afford entry – tables at the event cost anywhere between £12,500 and £20,000.

It’s not known whether wine was spilled or karaoke machines deployed as many of the details from this event have been kept secret.

But, in time-honoured Tory tradition, various prizes were auctioned to the assembled guests – the highest-value item seemingly being a dinner with Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his two predecessors, Theresa May and David Cameron, which sold for £120,000.

Auction prizes also included an African safari trip sold for £65,000, a shooting weekend for £37,000, and a wine tasting for £30,000.

Responding to this, the Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers Union (RMT) asked why big money donors were being allowed access to senior ministers while the union is not. The RMT is leading strike action this week, causing major disruption across the country’s rail network, yet the Government has rejected calls to negotiate directly with union representatives.

There is no legal obligation for the donors or the party to declare the identity of the lucky winners of the auction prizes. Individual political donations worth more than £7,500 must be registered with the Electoral Commission – likewise for donations worth £1,500 to non-central bodies – but there is no obligation to declare what the money paid for.

Byline Times asked the Conservative Party whether and how it vets the donors who purchase auction prizes at these fundraising events – in particular those who pay for meetings with senior ministers. It did not receive a response.

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Lubov Chernukhin is one of these Conservative donors, who has regularly paid for events with party grandees. Chernukhin parted with £135,000 for dinner with Theresa May when she was Prime Minister, and £160,000 for the chance to play tennis with Boris Johnson and David Cameron.

It’s now understood that Chernukhin was the donor who paid £30,000 for the wine tasting at Monday’s auction.

Chernukhin has been the subject of several media stories in recent months, due to the past proximity of her husband, Vladimir Chernukhin, to the Russian regime – having served as Russia’s deputy finance minister from 2000 to 2002, after which he was appointed by Vladimir Putin as the chair of a state bank.

The family claims that it was forced to flee Russia to the UK in 2004 after Vladimir Chernukhin was dismissed from his position and senior Conservative figures have defended Lubov’s contribution to Conservative Party finances, which has exceeded £2 million in recent years. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has said “I think it’s very important we don’t conflate people with Russian heritage with people close to the Putin regime”.

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine earlier this year, the party came under scrutiny for accepting money from Russian-linked donors, who have given £4.8 million to the Conservatives since 2012.

Chernukhin was in attendance at last night’s summer party, and Electoral Commission records show that she has given a further £7,616 to the party’s ‘Spring Lunch’ fundraising arm in recent months. OpenDemocracy reports that the Spring Lunch is a “fundraising lunch group meeting at luxury hotels such as the Dorchester, attended by MPs and peers, which raises money for the Conservatives’ marginal seats”.

She is also one of several donors to have been granted access to Downing Street via a secret ‘advisory board’ – a little-known collective of big money donors given exclusive access to senior Downing Street advisors and even the Prime Minister. 

Boris Johnson gave an address at last night’s event. It is believed he was accompanied by his Cabinet counterparts Rishi Sunak, Priti Patel, Liz Truss, Sajid Javid, Nadine Dorries, Mark Spencer, Oliver Dowden and Nadhim Zahawi – though the full list of attendees is again unknown.

The Electoral Commission says that the political party in receipt of donations is responsible for conducting permissibility checks on potential contributions – based on guidelines set by the Commission. Donations from purely foreign sources are not allowed by the Electoral Commission, but donations are allowed from citizens or company owners in multiple jurisdictions, as long as one of those jurisdictions is the UK.

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There are no national security or conflict of interest guidelines applied by the Electoral Commission. Indeed, Byline Times and The Citizens have calculated that COVID contracts worth £1 billion have been awarded by the Government to firms linked to Conservative donors.

It is unknown if the Conservatives apply any further checks – beyond the basic requirements set by the Electoral Commission – to prospective donors, and whether the party turns down funds accordingly.

The V&A has itself attracted criticism for its role in facilitating the Conservative Party’s fundraising efforts – with the museum auctioning a private tour during a recent Conservative fundraising event. Ben Elliot, a V&A trustee, is co-chair of the Conservative Party.

In the code of conduct for board members of public bodies, such as the V&A, it says: “In your public role, you should be, and be seen to be, politically impartial. You should not occupy a paid party political post or hold a particularly sensitive or high-profile role in a political party. You should abstain from all controversial political activity.”

Byline Times has previously calculated 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.

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.

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