Richard North, 31/07/2021  

An intriguing piece of work finds itself into the Financial Times entitled: "Inside Boris Johnson's money network".

This lifts the lid on some of the financing of the Conservative Party and, in particular, the relationship between prime minister Johnson and "an adept high-society operator" installed by him "to ensure the Tory party was bankrolled at the last election, is flush today and will be well into the future".

This is Ben Elliot (pictured with Johnson), the "impeccably connected nephew of Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall," a man who once described himself as a "willing slave to the stars". He is best known for running Quintessentially, a "concierge" company that famously caters to the whims of the wealthy, telling the FT that securing services for his wealthy clients was all about "knowing the right people to contact for the right favour".

Elliot first demonstrated his usefulness to ambitious Tory politicians in 2016 when he acted as treasurer for Zac Goldsmith's unsuccessful London mayoral campaign. "Boris was so taken with how rich [Elliot] is and just how many rich people he knows", a friend of the prime minister says.

Thus, Elliot was one of Johnson’s first appointments after becoming prime minister in July 2019, when he made him the Conservative party's co-chair. Since then, he has been at the centre of the Conservatives' funding operation. He is also Johnson's counsellor, meeting regularly on the tennis or squash court.

Elliot, we are told, has quietly transformed the Party's money culture, partly responsible for raising a record £8.6 million in the first two weeks of the 2019 election campaign. This has been achieved by bringing aspects of Quintessentially's model to the Party, so that ever-larger cash donations bring ever-greater access to the heart of government.

On behalf of the Conservative Party, he manages the secretive "Advisory Board", a hitherto unknown group of elite donors that does not officially exist on any party literature. These donors enjoy frequent and direct access to the Johnson or chancellor Rishi Sunak.

Under Elliot, says the FT, the Advisory Board has become the most desirable club in the Tory party, its members granted monthly access to, retaining as its members some of the money men who had supported Johnson's rise to power.

By way of background, the FT tells us that Elliot is 12 years Johnson's junior, but they have long moved in the same social circle. In the early 2000s, Elliot regularly played poker with Ben and Zac Goldsmith, wealthy environmentalists, at Crown London Aspinalls, a private gaming club in Mayfair.

Johnson, who made the transition from freewheeling political columnist and commentator to Tory MP at about the same time, was also part of the black-tie Aspinall clique.

And you can see how the wheels of influence work, when we see that Damian Aspinall, son of the club's founder, runs an animal conservation charity that recently hired Johnson's wife Carrie as head of communications. Risk-taking, Eton and Brexit, we are told, bound the group together, the members "fiercely loyal to each other", who always look after each other.

Redolent of the 2015 "cash for access" scandal, Elliot appears to be offering access to Johnson in the place of luxury recreation.

Described as effortlessly charming, Elliot will, for example, pitch potential donors in a "mockney" accent, adopting working-class patois, before following up with a steely approach. The FT cites a Conservative HQ insider saying, "He's very forceful".

This source adds that he can be brusque with donors and Tory staff alike, we are told. "Ben squeezes the pips from the donors. His follow-ups for money are blunt, along the lines of 'You owe us the money, you promised us the money'. He's like a bailiff".

Johnson apparently "detests" asking for cash, which has given Elliot great influence over the party's finances. He has done exactly what Johnson asked him to do: he turned the Conservatives into an extremely well-funded machine that wins elections. In the year running up to Johnson’s 2019 victory, the party raised a record £37.4 million in "large" donations, well over three times more than Labour.

Central to Elliot's fundraising strategy, we are told, is networking money to power. Mohamed Amersi, a businessman who has made millions in telecom deals around the world, says he met Elliot in New York. Amersi became a "global elite" member of Quintessentially.

In 2013, Amersi and his partner Nadia flew to Scotland and made their way to Dumfries House, an 18th-century stately home set on 2,000 acres. That night, he says he and Nadia dined with the Prince of Wales. "Ben was the one who invited us to come there", says Amersi of his first meeting with the heir to the British throne.

It was also Elliot, he says, who "started seeking donations from me and Nadia for the Conservative party even before he became chair". Nadia - the Russian-born Nadezhda Rodicheva - gave £250,000 in the run-up to the 2017 election. Another half-million pounds has followed from Amersi since.

That has been enough to buy Amersi membership of the Leaders Group - a longstanding club for Tory donors who enjoy monthly lunches with ministers - but not enough, he says, to join the Advisory Board made up of the highest donors. That club, Amersi says, is "like the very elite Quintessentially clients membership: one needs to cough up £250,000 per annum or be a friend of Ben".

Some senior Tories, we learn, talk of a "250 club" of donors who have given £250,000 or more. This 250 figure certainly features prominently in the recent list of donations to the party. Eight Conservative party donors gave sums of exactly £250,000 in 2020. Three donors have given that specific amount so far in 2021.

Those who have given at least that sum in 2020 or 2021 include Lubov Chernukhin, the wife of former Russian minister Vladimir Chernukhin; hedge fund manager Alan Howard; John Gore, a theatre producer, and Rosemary Saïd, wife of Wafic Saïd, the Syrian-born businessman known for his role in the UK-Saudi al-Yamamah arms sale.

The FT then has senior Tories telling us that the most important donors are tapped on the shoulder by Elliot and asked if they would like to join the Advisory Board, described as being made up of perhaps a dozen members.

And, although there was a "Leaders' Group" where people paid £50,000 to join, Elliot has taken the concept to another level. Since December the Advisory Board has spoken with either Johnson or Sunak on a monthly basis. "It's never below that rank", says one person briefed on its activities.

Members are thought to include Lord Anthony Bamford, of JCB fame, at whose factory Johnson launched his 2019 leadership bid. Others said to be members are Alan Howard and British financier Jamie Reuben.

The FT also reminds us that some of the biggest donations secured for the party come from property companies, who would be major beneficiaries of Johnson's promise to rip up England's highly restrictive planning laws to allow more housebuilding. Donors with property interests and links to development have given the party at least £17.9 million since Johnson became prime minister.

All of this has the Guardian reporting that Labour is calling for Johnson to explain what the "advisory board" is all about. Even if this goes nowhere, what the FT has put together shows that the Conservative Party has become a tool of its rich donors. Ordinary people – the plebs – don't get a look-in. And when we look to see why politics is broken, we are that much closer to knowing why.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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