The Electoral Commission flagged concerns about political donations to the Conservatives from Russian-linked donors, including Lubov Chernukhin, according to emails released to openDemocracy.
Chernukhin is the largest female donor in British politics. This week it was revealed that her husband, a Russian finance minister, had secretly been given $8 million by an oligarch with close ties to the Kremlin in the run-up to the 2016 Brexit referendum.
Chernukhin has given more than £1.7 million to the Conservatives over the past eight years. In July, the Electoral Commission sent an email to all staff ahead of the release of the parliamentary ‘Russia report’ into alleged interference in British politics.
Subtitled “foreign interference?”, the email noted press reports about Russian donors in British politics, and particularly Chernukhin’s donations.
This was not the first time the elections watchdog had mentioned Chernukhin to its staff. Last November, less than a month before the general election, the Electoral Commission wrote to its press team about “interesting donations” to the Conservatives, including from Chernukhin.
Responding to openDemocracy’s findings, opposition MPs and transparency campaigners have called for far tighter controls on foreign money in British politics.
“We need a new law to prohibit foreign lobbying. This makes it clear that this is needed urgently," said Labour MP Chris Bryant. "It's a depressing fact that our Electoral Commission has fewer powers to investigate potential legal breaches than virtually any other similar body in a Western democracy.”
Spotlight on Corruption director Sue Hawley said: “The UK needs to get an urgent grip on how dirty money is compromising our electoral process and in the process our national security.
“The lack of proper rules requiring parties to check the origin of funds seriously hampers the Electoral Commission's ability to hold them to account. The electoral laws need amending urgently to ensure that full due diligence is done on donations, and that parties can be held to account for not doing so,” she added.
The Electoral Commission said that the emails released to openDemocracy "are an example of the routine checks carried out by the Electoral Commission to ensure political donations come from permissible sources."
"The donations were flagged to our media team as it was clear there was media interest in the individuals which may have resulted in enquiries to the Commission," the regulator added.
The Electoral Commission’s powers are currently being reviewed by the Committee on Standards in Public Life amid widespread concerns that the watchdog lacks the powers needed to regulate British democracy. But the Conservatives have called for the commission’s powers to be curtailed, and even floated the possibility of abolishing the body altogether.
Lubov Chernukhin has emerged as one of the most significant donors in British politics. As well as paying hundreds of thousands of pounds to play tennis with David Cameron and then Boris Johnson, Chernukhin has given almost £400,000 to the Conservatives this year, at a time when the party has struggled to raise funds.
Such largesse has not gone unnoticed. On 14 November, the Electoral Commission told its press team to look out for a small number of “interesting donations” which might attract media attention.
“Some donations in this Tory list which may be worth flagging to the press team which involve people who have been in the news recently/just donating large sums of money,” the email stated, before providing details of Chernukhin’s background, noting that she had “dined with Theresa May [a] few months ago at a controversial Tory fundraising event”.
The pre-election email also noted of Chernukhin: “Brandon Lewis said it was right for Russian donors to invest in the election citing her as one.” Lewis, secretary of state for Northern Ireland, has received almost £25,000 from Chernukhin, including £10,000 in February.
The Electoral Commission emails – released following a Freedom of Information request from openDemocracy – also show the regulator raising concerns about other donations connected to Russian-born donors.
In June, the regulator contacted GBMW Ltd, a company run by former Tory MP James Wharton, to inquire about a £10,000 donation to Conservative mayor Ben Houchen shortly before the general election. GBMW is listed as a management consultancy at Companies House but the Electoral Commission said in an email that “there does not appear to be any information to confirm whether the company GBMW is currently carrying on business in the UK”.
The watchdog’s email also noted Wharton’s work for Aquind Ltd, whose public face is Alexander Temerko, the Soviet-born energy mogul who has been a regular Tory donor. Wharton – who was added to the House of Lords by Boris Johnson in July – became a paid advisor to Aquind after losing his Stockton South seat in 2017.
A follow-up email to the Commission, which appears to have been written by Wharton, accuses the regulator of “going far beyond its remit here”. The Electoral Commission confirmed to openDemocracy that it was satisfied that GBMW was conducting business in the UK and so a permissible donor under British electoral law.
The Electoral Commission also discussed Temerko’s company, Aquind, after the Conservatives phoned the commission. The regulator subsequently judged that a series of donations to the Tories totaling more than £100,000 and listed as being made by a company called Offshore Group Newcastle (OGN) had actually been made by Aquind. OGN, which listed Temerko as a director, went into insolvency in 2017.
The Electoral Commission told openDemocracy: “Donations to the party were originally uploaded incorrectly on our website, so the website showed the donations as from OGN but they are actually from Aquind, who are based somewhere called OGN House.”
The Electoral Commission said that the error had been rectified. But as of Thursday afternoon the donations, worth £122,400, were still listed on the regulator’s database of political donations as having been made by OGN, which was wound-up last year, rather than Aquind.
Aquind is currently seeking ministerial approval for plans to build a £1.2 billion undersea electricity interconnector between the UK and France. The Times recently revealed that Aquind’s ultimate owner is a secretive Russian-born tycoon.
Earlier this month a Tory MP was ordered to apologise for breaking parliamentary rules after he asked a question about Aquind’s interests after receiving a £10,000 donation from the company. David Morris, a backbench MP since 2010, was given money by Aquind Ltd in September last year and a month later asked the government to lobby Ofgem to make regulations that would benefit the company.
Opposition MPs said that action was needed to clamp down on the threat of foreign money getting into British politics.
“The Tories' apparent immersion in Russian money begs many questions. Whose money is this, really? What influence does it bring? Does the trail run straight back to the Kremlin? Foreign donations, however well they have been sequestered in the UK, should play no role in UK politics,” said Labour MP Chris Bryant.
Martin Docherty-Hughes, an MP for the Scottish National Party, said: “We’ve been assured for so long that donations of this nature have been properly vetted, but the FinCen revelations raise some fundamental issues for the Tories and their fundraising: what is the ultimate source of her Lubov Chernukin’s wealth? And how do we know she is a fit and proper person?
“I get the impression the Tories just don’t care, because they know fine well the Electoral Commission is toothless, and in the very unlikely scenario that it takes action against them, it can be simply written off as the cost of doing business. They are taking the public for fools.”
The Electoral Commission said that Chernukhin’s donations were “flagged as the individual’s donations have received press interest in the past and was intended to make colleagues aware”.
"The emails released to openDemocracy are an example of the routine checks carried out by the Electoral Commission to ensure political donations come from permissible sources. In this instance, we needed to obtain further information to assure that this was the case, as sometimes happens, and did so. Had we not been assured of that, we would have considered investigatory or enforcement action in line with our Enforcement Policy. The donations were flagged to our media team as it was clear there was media interest in the individuals which may have resulted in enquiries to the Commission," the Electoral Commission added.
Lawyers for the Chernukhins told the BBC that Lubov Chernukhin’s "donations to the Conservative Party have never been tainted by Kremlin or any other influence". They added all her donations have been declared in accordance with Electoral Commission rules.
The Conservatives and James Wharton have yet to respond to requests for comment.