How Ben Elliot supercharged Tory donations by targeting world’s ultra-wealthy

A year into his premiership, with Covid restrictions easing, Boris Johnson invited a few friends round for a film night at his Downing Street flat.

Guests included the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, Johnson’s then fiancee, Carrie Symonds, Ben Goldsmith, brother of Tory peer Zac, and Ben Elliot, the Conservative party co-chairman.

They gathered to watch Fire in Babylon, a documentary about West Indies cricket in the 1970s and 80s produced by Elliot and Goldsmith a decade earlier. “They loved it,” said Ben Goldsmith. “The PM grew up watching these guys.” Goldsmith described Elliot as “a very good friend of mine” and “a big cricket fan”.

The summer evening was a much-needed break after months of national woe and Johnson’s own serious brush with Covid-19. It was instructive too. It demonstrated the behind-the-scenes role played by Elliot, an Etonian and nephew of Prince Charles, who was appointed by the prime minister as co-chair of the Conservative party in July 2019.

The party has raised more than £70m since Elliot took over at the helm, including the record sum of £37m in the last quarter of 2019 as Johnson went to the polls, more than three times Labour’s £10m.

But as the party’s cash continues to pile up, so do the questions for Conservative high command. The investigation by the Guardian, the BBC’s Panorama and International Consortium of Investigative Journalists has put a spotlight on the links between Tory party coffers and offshore finance.

Elliot’s appearance at the top of the Conservative party has left some in Tory circles feeling uncomfortable. It is not unusual to install a well-connected businessman into the role to persuade their moneyed contacts to back the party. Lord Saatchi performed the role for Michael Howard, while David Cameron made the same use of his old friend and tennis partner Andrew Feldman.

But something was different about Elliot’s approach from the start. His connections, which span from royalty to his own high-net worth business clients at the luxury concierge service Quintessentially, appeared superior to anything the party has known before.

At the heart of the concern is that Johnson and Elliot have expanded the Conservative party’s reliance on a “cash for access” culture – leading to allegations that rich businessmen and women seeking influence can donate money and expect access to Boris Johnson and senior cabinet ministers in return.

The party has long been criticised for allowing this elite tier of donors who have given more than £50,000 to attend dinners with prime ministers from David Cameron to Theresa May.

But under Elliot’s tenure, the party has taken the practice to the next level, with an “advisory board” for major contributors, some of whom are reported to have given more than £250,000.

“Tory donors are this mix of people who want to get ahead, to buy respectability and those who want something in terms of policy,” says Peter Geoghegan, the author of Democracy for Sale: Dark Politics and Dirty Money, and editor-in-chief of OpenDemocracy.

Elliot took over as chairman at a time when some traditional captains of industry had stopped donating as much money because of unhappiness with Johnson’s “fuck business” attitude over Brexit, while some of the pro-leave donors had stopped giving money because of frustration over Theresa May’s attempts to soften the UK’s departure from the EU.

Elliot’s task was to restore the cash-pile again, ready for Johnson’s bid for his own electoral mandate. “Ben’s job is to squeeze the donors till the pips squeak,” says one Tory minister.

And how they have squeaked.

Since taking over, Elliot has shaken up Conservative central office, CCHQ, running what one insider described as a “separate operation”. Some staff are upset. Others are admiring. “He’s extremely charming and puppyish,” one said of Elliot. “But he belongs to a clique of the really rich.”

One former CCHQ staffer recalled him entering the room “like a silverback gorilla, a lot of macho energy going on”, and demanding results in what the staffer described as a brusque, aggressive tone during the 2019 election campaign.

But one former senior No 10 staffer offered another view.

They felt he “always had time for people, was very personable and a breath of fresh air”, byvoeging: “He believes in the party and takes a lot of criticism for his work when it would be easier and more lucrative to do other things.”

Many hedge fund donors returned to the Tory fold, along with some new super-rich names, and gave more money than ever at the 2019 verkiesing. But how much due diligence was done on some of these donors in the rush to raise cash for Johnson’s big election?

“He seemed to be ruthlessly efficient at it,” says Geoghegan. “The way Elliot operated in terms of going back to donors with very hard asks: it seems to be taking the traditional fundraising model and pushing it even further.

“But there also seem to be more potential conflicts of interest as well with Elliot given his business, Quintessentially. He could be accused of building his business at the same time as Tory fundraising.”

The charge is denied by Elliot. A spokesperson for him said his “work with Quintessentially is entirely separate from his voluntary role as Conservative party chairman”.

The Pandora papers has highlighted the business dealings of Mohamed Amersi, who was one of those who paid £15,000 a year to be a member of Quintessentially’s elite tier.

In 2013, Elliot organised for him to meet his uncle, Prins Charles, over a dinner at Dumfries House in Scotland. Amersi has since donated to royal charities and given £750,000 to the Konserwatiewes.

In an ironic twist, it was Amersi who revealed the existence of the higher-tier donor group. He told the Financial Times the advisory board was “like the very elite Quintessentially clients membership: one needs to cough up £250,000 per annum or be a friend of Ben”. Amersi said he was not a member.

Over the summer, Amersi turned on the Tories – accusing them of “access capitalism”.

“You get access, you get invitations, you get privileged relationships if you are part of the set-up, and where you are financially making a contribution to be a part of that set-up. Absolutely,” he said at the time.

Nou, a source of some of Amersi’s own wealth and suitability as a donor have been called into question by the Guardian and BBC Panorama’s investigation into offshore cash.

Another top tier donor who gave that sum in 2020 en 2021 is Lubov Chernukhin, whose husband, Vladimir, served in Vladimir Putin’s government as a deputy finance minister.

Mrs Chernukhin won the star lot at the party’s last fundraising ball – a game of tennis with Johnson and Elliot. Vladimir Chernukhin makes extensive use of the British Virgin Islands, with assets earned from his time in Moscow parked offshore, die Pandora papiere show.

The Conservatives say Mrs Chernukhin has “lived in Britain for many years and is a British citizen, which gives her the democratic and legal right to donate to a political party”.

Toe, there is Viktor Fedotov. Aquind, a firm he co-owns, has donated more than £400,000 to the Conservatives and some of its senior politicians since 2018. Before then, his company Offshore Group Newcastle was also a major donor.

Lawyers for Aquind have stressed Fedotov did not personally donate to the Conservative party, was not involved in the management of the company and had “no influence” over its donations. Fedotov’s lawyers said he “has never had any interest in British politics and has operated in an open and transparent manner throughout the course of his career”.

His majority ownership of Aquind was only recently made public, after questions about who was behind its controversial bid to build a £1.2bn subsea electricity cable to France and concerted lobbying of ministers. The Conservatives say government policy is “in no way influenced by the donations the party receives – they are entirely separate”.

Outside of the Pandora papers, there is the scandal surrounding Petrofac, whose boss, Ayman Asfari, and his wife have donated almost £800,000 to the Conservative party.

The multinational oil firm last week struck a deal to settle a corruption investigation with the Serious Fraud Office, admitting that its employees paid bribes to land contracts between 2011 en 2015. Maandag, it was fined £70m after admitting it used “systemic” bribery to secure large contracts

All these cases are separate – and in every case, the allegations against those involved have been strenuously denied.

Critics argue Johnson and Elliot have taken a far too relaxed approach to the reputational risk. The most notable of these was the fast-track planning approval for Richard Desmond, a Tory donor, property developer and former proprietor of the Express, who had been lobbying for a quick process to avoid £40m in tax. This was speeded through by Robert Jenrick, the communities secretary, and a £12,000 donation was made by Desmond two weeks later.

The decision had to be rescinded, with Jenrick saying he regretted exchanging messages with Desmond after sitting next to him at a fundraising dinner, but claiming there was “no bias whatsoever”.

CCHQ sources say Elliot did not invent the advisory board. Maar, they say, he has “reshaped” it. He has transformed the party’s funding model so it is now less reliant on donations from old-school entrepreneurs.

gevolglik, Tory insiders say, Elliot has targeted the international super-rich. The Tories insist all their donations are declared, and that fundraising is an integral part of the democratic process.

This is true – but the party’s shift towards accepting money from those with deep offshore links means further scandal seems likely.

The Conservative party has previously claimed that it follows money-laundering guidance governed by the Financial Conduct Authority requiring registered firms to undertake beneficial owner checks on customers, and donors have to agree to checks on their backgrounds when signing up to give money.

All parties carry out “permissibility checks” to make sure cash is given by UK-based voters, registered overseas voters, or UK-based organisations, which are governed by the Electoral Commission. Egter, there is no legal requirement for them to undertake the equivalent of anti-money-laundering checks on the source of the money. Some also question how thorough and professional their checks have been.

Daniel Beizsley, research consultant at Spotlight on Corruption, says more should be done to ascertain the source of money – in line with those that apply to buying a house or art dealing – to prevent scandals engulfing party financing.

“Some parties claim to follow Financial Conduct Authority advice on checking the source of donations, but … basic anti-money-laundering checks should be mandatory for all parties with more guidance published on the triggers in place that would require further, enhanced due diligence checks," hy sê.

“Enhanced due diligence checks could look at whether the donor is subject to a law enforcement investigation at the time of donation, and whether the party wanted to take on the reputational risk of taking cash from an entity facing criminal prosecution.”

Egter, none of this reputational risk appears to faze a prime minister who feels at the peak of his powers.

In his new elections bill, Johnson plans to prevent the Electoral Commission trying to take on a prosecutorial function, and seeks to abolish a rule that currently prevents donors who live abroad for more than 15 years from making political contributions.

All the while, the merry-go-round of donors and politicians continues. Verlede maand, Johnson was guest of honour at a Tory donor lunch, costing £5,000 a table, held in a Mayfair hotel.

Donors and businesspeople are paying £2,900 a head to attend the Conservative party conference business day this week, including policy sessions with ministers and an appearance from the chancellor, Rishi Sunak.

A Conservative party spokesperson said: “The Conservative party is funded by membership, fundraising and donations. Donations to the Conservative party are properly and transparently declared to the Electoral Commission, openly published by them, and comply fully with the law,” het sy bygevoeg.

“Fundraising is a legitimate part of the democratic process. The alternative is more taxpayer-funding of political campaigning, which would mean less money for frontline services like schools, police and hospitals.”

Margaret Hodge, the Labour former chair of the public accounts watchdog who has relentlessly campaigned against corporate tax avoidance, is not convinced.

She says things have changed since the “cash for access” scandals of the New Labour years in that there is less shock about such practices these days.

“There is such a nonchalant attitude about it at the top from Boris downwards. There is complete acceptance. Cash for access has just become mainstream now.”

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