Undercover donor gets access to the heart of the three main parties
23 March 2015
All three of Britain’s main political parties face criticism over their fundraising tactics, following an undercover investigation by Channel 4’s Dispatches.
Ahead of the general election, Dispatches set up a unique experiment to test the transparency of political donations in Britain and what access wealthy donors might get to senior politicians.
For six months, entrepreneur Paul Wilmott agreed to pose as a potential donor and joined the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties. Mr Wilmott suggested he was willing to donate £50,000.
In the course of the investigation Mr Wilmott met all three party leaders, met four cabinet ministers and two shadow cabinet ministers. He was attended the Conservatives‘ Black and White Ball and one of the Party’s exclusive donor clubs. Mr Wilmott met with Business Secretary Vince Cable and Shadow Chief Secretary to The Treasury Chris Leslie to discuss the introduction of a Financial Transaction Tax that might benefit a software business he claimed to be setting up.
Sir Alistair Graham, the former Chairman of the Committee for Standards in Public Life, viewed the undercover footage.
Viewers of tonight’s Dispatches will see:
• Russian businessman Alexander Temerko sitting next to Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt at a private lunch for donors at the Carlton Club in January. Mr Temerko is a former Russian businessman who made his fortune in oil before fleeing Russia and gaining British citizenship in 2011. He and his energy firm OGN have donated £690,000 to the Conservative Party.
Before the arrival of Jeremy Hunt, Mr Temerko is filmed saying: “…all MPs which I support which is 37 MPs…. You know for change [of] prime minister you need 20, I have 37. Much more than half.”
According to the latest electoral commission figures, Mr Temerko or his energy company OGN have given direct donations totalling some £220,000 to 24 MPs or constituency organisations. The latest quarterly donations have yet to be published.
Sir Alistair Graham said: “The Cabinet Minister of course will have been briefed at who is at the dinner …. there is a danger from the public’s point of view that somebody, purely because they’re a billionaire, whatever it is, er have got a special access, a special opportunity.
“And also, though it’s a joke he’s made about twenty being required to trigger a leadership election in the Conservative Party, he’s got the opportunity to … have a dialogue with them which may have very significant impact in the Conservative Party.”
• Dispatches also gained access to the Tories’ Black and White Ball at the Grosvenor House Hotel in February.
Foreign minister Hugo Swire lead the auction.
Mr Swire is filmed saying “We’re not saying who the donors are for the lots tonight, but I’d like to thank Stavro Goldfinger.”
Attempting to encourage a bid, Swire says: “£60,000 … Ian persuade him… He’s not on benefits is he? Well if he is, then he can afford it … 55,000?”
Swire also says: “It’s quite naff to have Bentleys and Rolls Royces and Ferraris because anybody could have them. In the good old days of MPs expenses we could have them too but we don’t anymore”.
Sir Alistair Graham said: “I can’t see why, if they’re doing this sort of thing, they can’t be transparent about it and say who was there and who bought what particular auction item.”
Mr Wilmott received an email from the Conservative Party inviting him to the Black and White Ball. It explains the pricing of tickets:
“Premium tables (tickets £1500) will be joined by a cabinet minister and will have a premium position in the room. Premier tables (tickets £1000) will be joined [by] a minister on the table. Standard tickets are £500. The higher price tables will have a better position in the room.”
The Party wanted to keep the Ball’s table plan secret but Dispatches discovered that Financial Secretary to the Treasury David Gauke was sat on the table paid for mobile phone giant Lyca Mobile.
Sir Alistair Graham said: “I suspect not a lot of policy issues are dealt with at a dinner like that… But I think it is about that feeling, if I make reasonable donations I’m in a special club who’ve got access to the leaders and that might be extremely useful as far as my business is concerned in the future.
“Ministers if they meet somebody formally in their offices are required to make that information public, now this jolly razzmatazz type affair they don’t have to do that.”
• Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury Chris Leslie having tea with Mr Wilmott at the Marriott Hotel in Westminster in January. Mr Wilmott put forward his views on the merits of a Financial Transaction Tax.
In an email to Mr Wilmott, Leslie said: “Many thanks for this Paul … I think you make some good points about the best way to introduce an FTT… I’ll have a good think about some of these good points ahead of our manifesto but I appreciate any updates you might have a long the way.”
Mr Wilmott then had a meeting with a Labour fundraiser who confirmed Mr Leslie know he was a potential donor. The fundraiser said: “I think when I spoke to him [ hris Leslie] and his office about it I said that you were a prospective donor”.
Sir Alistair Graham said: “The point about having access to opposition key leaders like Chris Leslie is of course normally their polices are much more fluid. They’re trying to develop policies they think are going to be attractive to the public and you see a specific reference to the manifesto. So here he is at the point of the development of the policies of the Labour where he might actually influence a manifesto pledge. Now that is an exception situation to be in… I suspect that the Labour Party would have been quite happy to have his input given his expertise but in this particular case the meeting happened very quickly because he was a prospective donor.”
• Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg meeting a potential donor and discussing ways the businessman could avoid public attention from his donation by using members of his family and splitting his donation across calendar years. Mr Wilmott met Nick Clegg on 27th November at a small reception in the Guildhall in Bath.
Liberal Democrat peer Lord Strasburger – who at the time was a member of the Party’s fundraising committee – introduces Mr Wilmott to the Deputy Prime Minister. Mr Wilmott had told Lord Strasburger that he was thinking of donating £50,000 but would rather his name not be linked to the donation. Lord Strasburger suggested that it was ‘perfectly legal’ for Mr Wilmott to use his wife or stepfather.
During a discussion between Nick Clegg, Paul Wilmott and Lord Strasburger, the peer says to the Liberal Democrat leader: “Paul [undercover donor] is trying to find a way to support us without sticking his head too far above the parapet and we’re working out how to involve his family in making donations.”
In response Nick Clegg says: “A very useful thing as well, it’s not a financial year calendar it’s an end of year calendar, so you can do things either side.”
“But thank you very much for the support you give, it is much needed and will be very well used.”
According to electoral law (PPERA) a party must identify donors if they give a political party more than £7500 in a calendar year. The party must provide the donor’s name to the Electoral Commission which discloses it in a public register. It is a breach of PPERA if there is an attempt to deceive who the donation has come from.
Nick Clegg has spoken out about the need of transparency in party fundraising. His suggestion of splitting a donation across a calendar year is not a breach of these rules but has been criticised by Sir Alistair Graham.
Sir Alistair Graham said: “I’m really surprised that those comments came from Nick Clegg because what he’s suggesting is not perhaps a breach of the rules … He himself as a party leader required to show very high levels of leadership in ethical matters in politics should have said ‘look,… if the donation is over 7,500 it’ll have to be declared who the donation is made by’. It should have been as simple as that and its very surprising that it wasn’t.”
On Friday, Lord Strasburger stood down from the Liberal Democrat’s fundraising committee and resigned the Party whip, following evidence obtained by the Dispatches’ investigation.
Lord Strasburger was secretly filmed telling Mr Wilmott that it is ‘perfectly legal’ to put donations in his wife’s or names of other family members. Lord Strasburger later accepted a £10,000 cheque that had been made in the name of an individual pretending to be Mr Wilmott’s stepfather. The cheque was cashed by the Liberal Democrats on February 4th. Parties have 30 days to return the donation otherwise it is deemed to have accepted the donation.
Sir Alistair Graham said: “My thoughts are that Lord Strasburger has been involved in an unlawful process where there is a real attempt to deceive where the money is coming from when the laws quite clear that its an offence to deceive where the money is coming from.”
He added: “It’s the treasurer of the party who is directly and legally responsible for these ah, matters, but also the leader is involved as well, but the treasurer if he is not told that genuinely where the donation has come from is in a very difficult position.”
Sorry, millionaires: Unless you’re a “multi-multi-millionaire or a billionaire,” politicians don’t have time for you: here.