Richard North, 05/08/2021  

Courtesy of an article in the Telegraph, we are learning things about the background to Mohamed Amersi's excursion into high-level whistleblowing and his revelations about the Tory Advisory Board.

According to Con Coughlin, author the article, Amersi's attempts to set up a new body, the Conservative Friends of the Middle East and North Africa (Comena) are being seen as an attempt to establish a more pro-Iranian power-broking outfit in London. He was seeking, it seems, to replace the Conservative Middle East Council (CMEC), which aims to foster better relations with British allies in the region such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Despite Amersi rigorously denies the accusations, it enables Coughlin to re-frame the entire affair as "an astonishing attack on Ben Elliot, the Conservative Party’s co-chairman and chief fundraiser", accusing him and other senior members of Tory HQ "of failing to provide him with sufficient backing in his attempts to set up Comena".

By this means, the whole of the publicity over this affair can be dismissed as pique or some other base motivation. Doubtless, Doubtless, Johnson and his cronies will be hoping that this will allows the whole question of "access capitalism" to be neatly by-passed without the need to address the issues raised.

Rather inconveniently, though, The Times seems to have other ideas. It is accusing Ben Elliot (pictured) – the central figure in this affair – of using his business to help manage party donors and arrange access to prime minister Johnson, despite Elliot's protestations that he keeps his business interests separate from his political activities.

To that effect, the paper has introduced a new name to the growing cast of characters, the Austrian-born Jakob Widecki, Elliot's co-director in a public relations and communications company called Hod Hill Ltd, incorporated on 8 May 2015 and boasting, according to its latest accounts net assets comfortably in excess of £1 million.

Now it is revealed that Widecki also holds a previously undisclosed role in Elliot’s team at Conservative headquarters. The Times has also learnt that Elliot uses his Quintessentially email address, rather than a Conservative account, for party business.

Widecki is described as being "deeply enmeshed" in the Conservative Party’s work. In an email to Amersi in July last year discussing plans for him to meet Johnson and other senior Conservatives, Elliot, who was using his Quintessentially email address, copied in two senior members of Conservative staff: Mike Chattey, the head of fundraising, and James Kerby, a business relations manager.

He also copied in Widecki at his Hod Hill address, meaning the single email incorporated representatives of the Conservatives, Quintessentially and Hod Hill. Elliot told Amersi that Widecki had "all the details" of a "virtual summer party" he hoped he would attend.

The revelation that Widecki simultaneously works for Hod Hill and for the Conservative Party, says The Times, raises serious questions about the crossover between Elliot's political and business interests. Asked by paper what Hod Hill does and how it came by its assets, Elliot declined to comment.

Intriguingly, Elliot's broader political role should have come as no particular surprise. He was the subject of a gushing profile in the Sunday Telegraph in September 2019, under the headline: "Ben Elliot, friend to the rich and influential, aims to make his mark in politics".

Then marked down as listed in the notorious "little black book" of high-rolling contacts maintained by the deceased sex offender – and private island owner – Jeffrey Epstein. Elliot was also a New York dinner guest of Ghislaine Maxwell, the British socialite who is alleged to have acted as a madam for Epstein.

But, in 2019, the Telegraph had him moving out of the shadows and towards the front lines of politics. Elliot's "elite social and business connections", the paper suggested, "could prove invaluable to the Tories as they seek another round of donations for the next campaign". And thus they proved to be.

Interestingly, the Telegraph reported that the latest accounts had Quintessentially UK Ltd, the holding company for the main concierge business, reported turnover down seven percent to £23.1 million and a loss before tax of £3.4 million for the year to the end of April 2018. That compared with a loss of £2.7m the year before. The declines were attributed to the loss of corporate contracts and bad debts that had to be written off.

As the picture deteriorated, Quintessentially embarked on a restructuring that sought to bring the array of satellite companies which orbited the mothership under central control. They included an estate agency, an art dealership and a chauffeur service.

However, for the year ending 30 April 2019, the consolidated group accounts were showing a revenue of £50.4 million – compared with a group-wide trading performance the previous year of £51.5 million. Gross profit increased from £19.1 million to £20.7 million, but the group showed an operating loss of £3.9 million for the year, compared with £4.5 million the previous year.

Intriguingly, the Telegraph reported back in 2019, control of Quintessentially was shared with the World Fuel Services Corporation, a New York-listed global fuel distributor, headquartered in Miami, with annual revenues of $40 billion, handling 20 million gallons per day worldwide to commercial, government and military users.

In 2011, this company invested tens of millions of pounds in Elliot's empire, in hopes of a joint move into the private airport market, and holding over half a million ordinary shares in the company, making it a major shareholder. World Fuel Services's chief financial officer, Ira Birns, has been a director of Quintessentially since 2012.

Fortunately for Ben Elliot, his US partner - ranked No. 91 in the 2018 Fortune 500 list of the largest United States corporations - has deep pockets, affording his company an ongoing loan facility agreement, with the balance last reported as standing at just over £2 million.

Quite where this leaves us is hard to say, but one small irony cannot escape comment – the fact that Ben Elliot, financed by a multi-billion US fuel distributor, is a friend of millionaire environmentalist and now environment minister, Zac Goldsmith.

What does emerge from the convoluted affairs of Ben Elliot is that it must be virtually impossible to disentangle the skein of interests that he represents, segmenting them neatly into business and political activities. It would suggest that the very last person who should be absorbed into the Conservative Party hierarchy is this man.

Certainly, when Johnson took him on in 2019 as a fundraiser and confident, he must have had a good idea of what Elliot represented. But, as Rafael Behr remarks in the Guardian, when it comes to rules, Johnson simply doesn't care.

And while there is no obvious fallout from the Elliot affair (yet), Behr suggests that there is a slow burn to sleaze. The common theme is arrogance with power and a view that following the rules is for little people and mugs.

The whole business of VIP fast lanes for public procurement and backstage passes to Whitehall cuts against a sense of orderliness and decency that is baked deeper into British culture than the abstract freedoms that Rees-Mogg would trace back to Magna Carta.

In the hierarchy of things that cost a government its support, a law that is unsound in principle comes below a feeling that the rules are arbitrary. A recent dip in Tory poll ratings, Behr thinks, is doubtless connected to the sense that the government is making it all up as it goes along.

And that, he says, comes below the greatest offence of all, which is that rules are not what they seem, applied slyly in a way that lets cheats prosper. Into that category comes the cash for access Advisory Board, and Elliot's wheeler-dealing. This has not set the nation of fire, but it hasn't gone away.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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