The Conservative party conference was on Monday engulfed in a growing scandal over Tory donors and their alleged links to corruption, with Boris Johnson facing calls to hand back cash and submit the party to an investigation.
The prime minister and his ministers were forced to answer a string of questions about donations following revelations in the Pandora papers unearthed by the Guardian and BBC Panorama.
Anneliese Dodds, the chair of the Labour party, and Lisa Nandy, the shadow foreign secretary, were among those to challenge the Tories over the sources of their funding, with Dodds saying: “There can’t be one rule for senior Conservatives and their chums and another rule for everyone else.”
She added: “Boris Johnson’s Conservatives have serious questions to answer about their fundraising activities.”
Politicians from Labour, the Tories and Lib Dems also lined up to criticise the government over the wider role of London in the offshore economy, with one Conservative MP saying it was the “money laundering capital of the world”.
The controversy over Tory party funds came as the Pandora papers prompted fallout across the world, with inquiries announced in India, Pakistan, Mexico, Spain, Brazil, Sri Lanka, Australia, Panama, and the Czech Republic.
The White House pledged to “crack down on the unfair schemes that give big corporations a leg up” in the wake of the Pandora papers, the largest leak in offshore financial data in history.
In Manchester, where the Conservative party was meeting for its annual conference, ministers dodged a slew of questions prompted by revelations in the leak. They include disclosures that:
Johnson had hoped his first in-person Conservative conference since his election victory of 2019 would be dominated by his agenda on levelling up, but he was forced to field questions about the Tory donors as he made a visit to a Manchester construction site.
He insisted all donations were properly scrutinised – but Labour called on the Conservatives to hand back the £750,000 donated by Amersi and his partner since 2018.
The Lib Dems called for an investigation by the Electoral Commission, while the SNP accused the Tories of “sinking in a sea of sleaze”.
Speaking during the Conservative party conference, Johnson told reporters at a Network Rail site in Manchester: “I see that story today. But all I can say on that one is all these donations are vetted in the normal way in accordance with rules that were set up under a Labour government. So, we vet them the whole time.”
Sajid Javid, the health secretary and former chancellor, praised the Guardian and its partners – and said he was committed to transparency.
“It sounds to me like it is a good piece of journalism. I haven’t read all the different stories about all the different people but it sounds to me like you’ve been doing good work on that and I am all for transparency and getting stuff out there but I can’t talk about the detail.”
The party is now braced for further disclosures about senior Tories from the Pandora papers in the coming days.
The revelations will also pile pressure on the government over an upcoming decision on whether to grant permission for one of Fedotov’s companies, Aquind, to build a £1.2bn electricity cable between the UK and France.
Kwasi Kwarteng, the business secretary, who will take the decision based on official advice, declined to comment on the disclosures about Fedotov and Aquind. But one senior Conservative told the Guardian there were serious national security concerns about allowing the Aquind project to proceed.
Stephen Morgan, a Labour MP opposing the interconnector proposal, said he had raised concerns over alleged “Aquind cronyism” and said ministers should “stop their dither and delay and must immediately stop” the project.
Politicians from Labour, the Tories and Lib Dems also lined up to criticise the government over the wider role of the UK in supporting offshore jurisdictions exposed in the Pandora papers.
Andrew Mitchell, a Conservative MP and former cabinet minister, told the Guardian: “It’s clear that Britain and its overseas territories continue to provide extensive secret laundering practices and remain the money laundering capital of the world – as exposed by this bombshell leak. Sunlight is the best disinfectant and we must expose these murky practices in order to clear them up. We also need to toughen up our lax rules and beef up our weak enforcement.”
Asked about the revelations on the BBC, Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, promised tax authorities would look at the wider Pandora papers leak for evidence of wrongdoing but he denied anything about London’s financial centre was a “source of shame”.
However, Margaret Hodge, the former Commons public accounts committee chair, and John McDonnell, the former shadow chancellor, said the government must accept that the UK “lies at the heart of the scandal”.
Hodge said: “Secrecy about property ownership permits money laundering. British lawyers, bankers and advisers provide the cover. Our regulation is weak, our enforcement pathetic.”
She called on the government to act by introducing “transparency, tough regulation, effective enforcement and holding the professionals to account”.
“The Tories promised a public register of property ownership in 2016; consulted in 2017; promised a bill in 2018; did so again in the 2019 Queen’s speech and at the 2021 G7. We’re still waiting. I’m sick of empty promises. I’m ashamed we allow this behaviour to flourish in Britain,” she said.
A Conservative party spokesperson said the party performed compliance checks in line with the law. They 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.
“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.”
Party co-chairman Ben Elliot also said that donations were “properly and transparently declared”.
On the Chernukhins, the spokesperson said: “Ms Lubov 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. The Conservative party does not accept foreign donations – as they are illegal.
“There are people in this country of Russian origin who are British citizens and have the democratic right to donate to a political party.”
On Aquind, she added: “Government policy is in no way influenced by the donations the party receives – they are entirely separate. We are motivated by the priorities of the British public, acting in the national interest.”