Dark Money Investigations: News

Tories have accepted £2.6m from ‘shadowy’ donors since Boris Johnson became PM

Exclusive: Secretive groups that can keep donors anonymous have given £800,000 to ‘Red Wall’ Tory MPs since 2019

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Seth Thévoz Martin Williams Peter Geoghegan
8 July 2021, 11.40am
Boris Johnson's party has accepted £2.6m from groups with anonymous funders since 2019
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The Conservative Party has accepted £2.6m in donations from ‘shadowy’ groups with anonymous funders since Boris Johnson became prime minister.

An analysis by openDemocracy also reveals that more than £800,000 of this was given directly to individual Tory MPs and their local parties, mostly in marginal ‘Red Wall’ seats.

The finding comes after the Committee on Standards in Public Life warned yesterday that “unincorporated associations” could be used as “a route for foreign money to influence UK elections”.

The committee’s report said that “no transparency” is required when these groups donate to individual MPs, and the people funding them “are not required to be permissible donors”.

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Speaking on BBC Radio 4, Lord Evans – the committee's chair – said these groups “can sometimes look slightly shadowy, because you don’t know who has given money to them but they can then contribute funds to campaigns”.

openDemocracy found that British political parties have reported donations worth £12.9m through unincorporated associations in the past five years. £4.1m of this has been declared since Boris Johnson became prime minister in July 2019, with the majority going to his party.

The groups include the Recovery Alliance, which has provided media and consultancy services to anti-lockdown Tory MPs. But the original funders of the group are still unknown.

The Scottish Unionist Association Trust (SUAT) has also faced criticism, after anonymously handing money to Scottish Tory marginal seats in the run-up to the 2016 Holyrood elections. The party repeatedly declined to answer questions from openDemocracy, but has since continued declaring tens of thousands of pounds from the group.

And in 2019, the SUAT took nearly half a million pounds from another unincorporated association, the Irvine Unionist Club, which had previously told openDemocracy that it no longer existed. Since then, the SUAT has been doling out dozens of donations to key Tory seats.

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Most unincorporated associations are innocuous groups, such as small local fundraisers or councillors banding together to pay for staff. But these structures have also been used to funnel large sums of ‘dark money’ in British politics.

The Democratic Unionist Party’s record-breaking £435,000 Brexit donation came through an unincorporated association called the Constitutional Research Council. The source of this money has never been revealed.

Opposition parties have called for the committee’s recommendations to be implemented but a new government Elections Bill, introduced on Monday, includes few attempts to bring transparency to political funding.

Cat Smith, Labour’s shadow minister for democracy in the Cabinet Office, told openDemocracy: “Over the last decade the Conservatives have failed to take any action to close the loopholes allowing foreign money to flood into our democracy. This benefits the Conservative Party, allowing wealthy foreign donors who’ve never paid tax in the UK to bankroll their campaigns.

“Instead of closing these loopholes, the government’s Elections Bill announced this week will further weaken our donation laws, allowing rich Conservative expats unlimited access to our democracy and opening the floodgates for foreign money into our politics.”

Elite clubs

Other unincorporated associations include the Carlton Club, an elite £1,700-a-year private members’ club in London’s West End that has supported the Conservative Party for almost 200 years.

Since lockdown last year, the club has made donations of £2,500 each to several Tory MPs in Red Wall constituencies in the north of England and the Midlands. These included donations to MPs and associations in Birmingham Northfield, North East Derbyshire, Stoke-on-Trent, West Bromwich East, and Wolverhampton North East.

As an unincorporated association, there is no way of tracing the original donors of this money.

The United & Cecil Club, a secretive dining society hosted by the Carlton Club, has given £15,000 to the Conservative Party this year – as well as £2,500 to Matthew Robinson’s campaign to be mayor of West Yorkshire.

At the 2019 general election, the United & Cecil Club made similar donations to Tory associations covering dozens of seats, including 11 that were Tory gains at the last election.

Meanwhile, the Midlands-based Leamington Fund has given more than £95,000 to the Conservatives. No public records for the group exist.

“Unincorporated associations make it far too easy to hide the identity of those who make political donations,” said Alex Runswick, senior advocacy manager at Transparency International UK.

“Knowing who is helping fund political campaigns is essential to protect against funds of unknown provenance entering our democracy as well as understanding what these donors may be expecting in return. The law should be changed to provide much greater transparency over contributions from these secretive donor clubs.”

‘Glaring lack of transparency’

Many unincorporated associations are run for legitimate reasons, but they can also provide a loophole in transparency rules.

Normally, individuals who give more than £1,500 to a political campaign need to declare their donation publicly. But donors can avoid this by giving up to £7,500 to an unincorporated association. This group can then pass the money on to a political party without disclosing the original donor’s identity.

Jess Garland, director of policy and research at the Electoral Reform Society, told openDemocracy last month that unincorporated associations are “another giant hole in the sieve that is Britain’s party funding rules”.

“There is a glaring lack of transparency that only fosters distrust and – often justified – fears over who is secretly steering our political debate,” she said.

There is a glaring lack of transparency that fosters distrust over who is steering our political debate

Tory MPs in key marginals like Stoke-on-Trent North, Newcastle-under-Lyme, and Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire are among those to have been major beneficiaries of unincorporated associations’ money.

But the biggest beneficiary of all has been the Surrey Heath Conservative Association, whose MP is Michael Gove.

The Conservative Party’s reliance on unincorporated associations has dwarfed that of other parties. But it is not alone in taking money from them.

Recently, the Labour Party accepted £15,000 from the Labour Finance and Business Group, a unincorporated association which is formally affiliated to the party and was designed to act as "the bridge between the Labour Party and the business community”.

The Momentum campaign group has also made political donations as an unincorporated association, giving a single payment of £4,145 to Labour MP Apsana Begum.

“There is almost total lack of transparency about unincorporated associations' activities and membership meaning donations through this route are clearly open to abuse by just about anyone with the money and will to do so,” said Susan Hawley, executive director of transparency group Spotlight on Corruption.

“The rules clearly need to be updated to prevent these associations from accepting money from overseas donors and requiring them to publish donations to individual candidates.”

There is no suggestion that any of the unincorporated associations named have acted improperly.

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