Dark Money Investigations: News

Defence firm part-owned by Johnson’s £1m donor wins £80m MoD contract

Christopher Harborne is the largest single shareholder in QinetiQ, which announced a lucrative government deal this week

Jim Fitzpatrick square
Jim Fitzpatrick
19 January 2023, 11.00pm

Boris Johnson and Ben Wallace at the National Memorial Arboretum, Staffordshire, 2020

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PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

The man who gave a record £1m donation to Boris Johnson is the largest single shareholder in a UK defence company that secured an £80m government contract this week, openDemocracy can reveal.

Christopher Harborne, a Thai-based businessman and multi-million-pound donor to the Brexit Party and the Conservative Party, made the £1m donation to the Office of Boris Johnson Ltd, a company controlled by the former prime minister.

The donation was made in November and listed on the MPs register of interests last week. It’s believed to be the biggest donation to an individual MP in UK history.

In recent months, Harborne has been building a stake, through companies he controls, in the major UK defence company QinetiQ, and is now the single biggest shareholder, owning more than 10% of the company with a holding worth £193m.

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On Monday, QinetiQ announced that it had secured a ten-year IT contract with the Ministry of Defence (MoD) worth £80m.

The company, which employs almost 5,500 people in the UK across several sites, is a major government contractor and was once part of the MoD before it was privatised and floated on the stock exchange in 2006.

One of its biggest government contracts to date is a £2.5bn agreement signed with the MoD in 2018 to provide engineering services over a ten-year period.

Its UK business turned over £960m last year and it had total global revenues of around £1.3bn. In its November trading statement, QinetiQ reported orders up 18%, revenue up 12% and underlying operating profit up 39%.

Among its range of products, the company is developing military robots and laser technology. Like many defence companies, it has seen an increase in sales since the start of the war in Ukraine.

Defence secretary is ex-employee

Defence secretary Ben Wallace worked for QinetiQ as its overseas director in the security and intelligence division for two years until his election to Parliament in 2005.

A Ministry of Defence spokesperson told openDemocracy that defence contracts such as QinetiQ’s latest are awarded through a legal tendering process, and a system called “Defence AWARD” that sets rules for how they are evaluated and granted.

“Contracts are awarded in accordance with Defence and Cabinet Office regulations, with any conflicts of interest declared through the usual process,” they added.

A QinetiQ spokesperson said: “QinetiQ works with numerous democratically elected governments across our core markets. In the UK, defence is a cross-party topic. We do not make donations to UK political parties or comment on any donations our significant shareholders might choose to make.”

Green Party peer Natalie Bennett said the interlinking of private contractors and military operations “at the deepest level” was cause for “the highest level of concern”.

She added: “We have a huge problem with lack of trust in politics. And the emergence of tightly interlinked ties – and political donations – like these is hugely damaging to public trust.

“We need to end all big money donations in politics, so we don't simply get the politicians that multinational companies and the rich pay for. And end the revolving door between industry and politics.”

£15m to Boris Johnson, Conservative Party and Reform UK

Harborne’s £1m donation to Boris Johnson matches two £500,000 donations he made to the Conservative Party in February and May last year. He had previously given £13.7m to Reform UK, formerly the Brexit Party, and an initial £300,000 to the Conservative Party prior to that.

The Office of Boris Johnson Ltd, which received the £1m donation, is a company set up by the former PM in October last year. Its filings at Companies House are sparse, but show that Johnson himself is the sole shareholder and the “person of significant control”.

Harborne has business interests in aviation fuel and crypto trading. He lives in Thailand where he is also known as Chakrit Sakunkrit and is understood to have both UK and Thai citizenship.

His stake in QinetiQ is owned through a company called Klear Kite LLC, registered in Delaware in the US.

There has been speculation that the £1m donation to Johnson is intended to fund his potential return to the leadership of the Conservative Party. Johnson and Harborne were contacted for comment, but did not respond.

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