Revelations that a suspected Chinese agent has flushed a cool half million pounds through the office of one Labour MP over recent years have been swiftly followed by accusations and counter-accusations in the UK High Court and also Parliament between rival Conservative Middle East groups. The quarrel has flagged another gaping open door for foreign influence buying through so-called parliamentary friendship groups which both sides appear to accuse the other of being involved in.
There is a need for “massive reform” of the entire sector acknowledges one of the protagonists, Charlotte Leslie, an ex-MP and Director of the Conservative Middle East Council (CMEC).
Since it disaffiliated from the party in 2019 she says CMEC has transformed its fundraising thanks to no longer having to declare its donors. Now, as a private limited company, Leslie explains CMEC can also accept foreign funding. However, she said she has also come to realise the entire situation is open to abuse and needs to be reformed “we need to work out how it should be done”.
Her critics, including the major Conservative donor Mohammed Amersi, who has sought to replace CMEC with another affiliated party group called COMENA (which perhaps equally controversially he would largely fund himself) express concern at the loss of official scrutiny. Thanks to its disaffiliation CMEC no longer has to report its finances to the Electoral Commission, which both sides agree was the purpose for that move.
That oversight was a good thing says Leslie. However, “it was a choice between no CMEC or a de-regulated CMEC” because donors were not coming forward to fund friendship events, in particular ‘fact-finding’ trips to the Middle East which Leslie believes are very important to aiding understanding.
As a private limited not for profit company CMEC only has to produce short form accounts, which in 2020 registered an accumulated capital of £300,000 compared to funds having “dried up” the previous year.
Leslie defends the move and has triggered now widely reported concerns about Mr Amersi having alternatively made his own fortune abroad, highlighting alleged business contacts with global oligarchs and controversial business deals – money that would presumably be financing COMENA’s activities. It has sparked the libel case against her for doing what she describes as a ‘due diligence’ on Amersi – having first approached him for funding herself.
She implies that she was ‘naive’ not to have looked sooner at what she says was open source information, although he was an established donor to the party. “Being a permitted donor under election law you can still channel dubious money. In political parties due diligence is effectively non-existent”, she troublingly reveals.
Amersi has hotly denied all the insinuations, suggesting that far from being the whistleblower many think she is her motive was self interest to remove a rival channel of Middle East access to Conservative lawmakers. This plainly is denied.
Such open accusations raise glaring questions over very the existence of any such conduits and to what extent ‘friendship and fact-finding’ groups are merely a fig leaf for influence-mongering or indeed a ‘calling card’ for MPs seeking lucrative contracts for ‘consulting’ in oil states?
Leslie is frank that she has concluded the present situation is badly exposed and that with her disaffiliated group it is also “very, very worrying” because whilst she herself is scrupulous (her salary is equivalent to what she earned as a former MP) there is “ample space to take back-handers” which a potential successor to her job, or someone managing similar groups receiving foreign money to interact with MPs, could exploit – or so she believes. “Every donor has an agenda”.
Leslie adds she’d stipulated she did not want CMEC to become “a repository for dubious foreign money” but now realises the opportunity exists and the situation must be addressed throughout the political funding sphere. “It’s important MPs see the world in an impartial way, we just need to work out how it should be done”.
CMEC is itself countering suggestions its new funding comes at the behest of authoritarian Middle East regimes seeking to influence the ruling Conservative party. Leslie acknowledges money from the Arab League, but categorically denies funding from Gulf regimes. Indirect funding, on the other hand, she described as “problematic”. Systems are needed.
“On principle I don’t need to disclose [the funders]” she explained, pointing out that other non-affiliated organisations such as Friends of Israel do not disclose their donors either – “ask them first”. Some donors have security issues she also pointed out in further explanation.
CMEC also categorically denies allegations that its work can be described as lobbying, although its company articles of association do include a remit “to lobby” alongside its friendship activities and also provide for the company to “enter contracts to provide services”.
One senior Conservative who does not wish to be identified has told Sarawak Report that after the disaffiliation several people in the party “became increasingly concerned about the distancing from the Nolan principles of disclosure and where the money was coming from”. They said there was concern about what these anonymous donors were expecting for their money in undisclosed agreements.
In November CMEC led a group of Conservative MPs (including the Defence Select Committee chairman Tobias Ellwood and Foreign Select Committee members Bob Seely and Royston Smith) and former MPs, who now advise for the consultancy Francis Maude Associates (including Alan Duncan, Phillip Hammond and Francis Maude himself) to attend the so-called Manama Dialogue in Bahrain, funded by the Bahrain Government
A ‘whistleblowing’ complaint that suggested CMEC has been acting as an unregistered lobbyist in such matters has on the other hand been rejected in an adjudication by the Lobbying Registrar, based on a letter from CMEC’s solicitors that gave “explicit and substantive assurances that CMEC has never communicated with ministers or senior civil servants in order to lobby on anyone’s behalf”.
Leslie says the three staff at CMEC act according to strict protocols drawn up by legal counsel to avoid lobbying allegations, which would require the company to be registered and subject to similar scrutiny over its donors as under the Election Commission. “It’s a nightmare, the sector needs reforming. We do our best but can we get it wrong? Yes” comments Leslie. “If you are near a minister you don’t mention an agenda, that would be lobbying”.
The lobbying allegations are likely to have originated from the same on-going battle with Mr Amersi who discovered Ms Leslie had circulated a memo containing her ‘due diligence findings’ about him to a circle of people that he says included senior Conservatives and Middle East Ambassadors. Following a legal challenge by him against Ms Leslie the details of the memo found their way to wider media. He sued CMEC for defamation late last year.
The row has spilled into a slew of other headline exposes in recent months as Amersi, now in the media spotlight (he has donated over £700,000 to the Conservatives and more to the Royal Family) opted to speak out about so-called Cash for Access and Peerages. Leslie has accused him of seeking a peerage in return for his donations to the Middle East group.
Further accusations look set to produce further revelations. What both sides in this increasingly bitter row plainly agree is that the incentives for buying influence are clear and the door is open to all the abuses they each deny but accuse the other of.
Launching the Department of Justice’s case against 1MDB back in 2015, the ex-Deputy Director of the FBI expressed his concern over the contaminating effects of dirty foreign money. Yet London and its off-shore finance sector have become notorious for servicing suspect cash, risking the corruption that it brings with it. Parliamentarians and indeed Ms Leslie are right to have become worried, to demand massive reform and full scrutiny, including for themselves.
[Tomorrow, (Thursday) MPs will debate the use of ‘SLAPP,’ heavy handed libel proceedings to prevent reporting. It has been driven by Leslie’s own libel ordeal which she says has woken her and MPs she has spoken to to the advantages libel laws give wealthy litigants to silence journalists who are objectively seeking to report in the public interest – crucial to our democracy.]