Boris Johnson insisted this week that the Tories “do not raise money from Russian oligarchs”.
While that may be true in legal terms, the reality is murkier. According to a Labour party calculation, based on Electoral Commission information, donors who have made money from Russia or Russians have handed £1.93 million to either the Conservative party or constituency associations since Johnson became prime minister in 2019.
The biggest single donor in that list is financier Lubov Chernukhin, who has given £700,000. A British national since 2011, she is married to Vladimir Chernukhin – a former deputy finance minister under Putin who, according to the Pandora paper leaks, was allowed to leave Russia in 2004 with assets worth £366 million.
Speaking to BBC Breakfast on Wednesday, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss was presented with a photograph appearing to show her standing alongside Chernukhin.
The picture, which was posted to Truss’s Instagram page in April 2019, has the caption: “And it’s ladies night…#cabinetandfriends #girlpower”
Matthew Elliot and Vote Leave
Asked if the image shows the closeness of the government to Russian money, she said: “What I can say to you today is that we will target anybody who we believe has links to the Putin regime, who is helping support and prop up the Putin government, and nothing is off the table in terms of who we target.”
Another prominent donor is Alexander Temerko, an industrialist and also a UK national, who has donated £357,000 since Johnson took office. So too is Mohamed Amersi, who advised on a lucrative telecom deal in Russia in 2005 with a company that a Swiss tribunal soon found to be controlled by an associate of Vladimir Putin.
Beyond the dodgy donations, the Tories have other links to Moscow. Significant among them is Matthew Elliott, the former chief executive of Vote Leave – and founder of rightwing pressure group the Taxpayers’ Alliance.
Elliott – who was mooted to be on the cusp of joining Sajid Javid’s team as an adviser after he was made chancellor in 2019 – was a prominent member of Conservative Friends of Russia, a group which has been accused of uncritically supporting Putin (along with Robert Buckland, the former attorney general, and Nigel Evans, the deputy speaker).
A group trip to Moscow attracted controversy in 2012, when it emerged that the Russian diplomat liaising with Conservative Friends of Russia was the son of a top-ranking Kremlin spy. Sergey Nalobin once jokingly described himself on Twitter as a “brutal agent of the Putin dictatorship:)”.
Labour claimed on Wednesday that the government will have “no credibility” on tackling Russia’s aggression in Ukraine until the Tories no longer accept Russian-linked donations.
Downing Street defended donations made to the Tories by people of Russian origin, saying it is “wrong and discriminatory to tar them with the same brush” when many are critical of the Putin regime.
‘No credibility at all’
As MPs debated tackling illicit finance linked to the Russian state, Labour MP Dame Margaret Hodge called for the government to give donations from Russian-backed donors to organisations like Transparency International.
“Until the Conservative Party does that, they will have no credibility at all in the argument on fighting corruption,” she said.
And David Lammy, the shadow foreign secretary, said Labour is concerned about “too much connection between Russian oligarchs” and donations to the Conservatives.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, he said: “Our concerns are, I’m afraid, that there has been too much connection between Russian oligarchs and donations to the Conservative Party.
“But we’ve said this. We think that they should hand back £2 million.
“Frankly, it’s not clear entirely what’s going on. I mean, I just think this was a moment when Britain had to step up and demonstrate certain kinds of seriousness. It hasn’t happened.”
Foreign Office minister Amanda Milling said the party did not “accept foreign donations” and all donations were from British citizens “received in good faith after appropriate due diligence”.