National security is threatened when politics is in thrall to cash

Nick CohenIt’s not just a party matter when politicians pay little heed to who gives them money

Prince Charles with Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall and her nephew Ben Elliot, who is the Conservative party co-chairman. Prince Charles with Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall and her nephew Ben Elliot, who is the Conservative party co-chairman. Photograph: Chris Jackson/Getty ImagesPrince Charles with Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall and her nephew Ben Elliot, who is the Conservative party co-chairman. Photograph: Chris Jackson/Getty Images

The sight of Winston Churchill’s grandson being threatened with legal action for passing on warnings about a political influencer’s dealings with a hostile foreign power ought to stir the national memory. A tingle of an alarm perhaps. A feeling that patriots should be given a hearing, not shut down by London lawyers charging £500 an hour to any passing member of the global super-rich.

Last week, the Financial Times told how the former Conservative MPs Sir Nicholas Soames and Charlotte Leslie passed memos that reportedly dealt with the past dealings in Russia of a businessman and philanthropist named Mohamed Amersi to Ben Elliot, the co-chairman of the Conservative party.

Amersi and his Russian-British partner, Nadezhda Rodicheva, have given the Tories more than £750,000 since 2017. In the leadership election, Amersi found he had backed every horse by giving £10,000 each to Jeremy Hunt, Michael Gove, Boris Johnson and Rory Stewart. Whoever won would be in his debt, apart from Stewart, that is, who returned the money.

Elliot read the memos. He wasn’t concerned and accepted another 50 grand from Amersi. Amersi found out about the private memos. Elliot did not pass them on to him, I am told; they came via a third party. He hired Mishcon de Reya and Carter-Ruck to threaten Soames and Leslie with actions for libel and breach of data protection and says he has already spent close to £300,000 on legal fees.

Amersi seems to want to insert himself into one of the most sensitive areas of foreign policy by setting up an alternative organisation to Soames’s and Leslie’s Conservative Middle East Council. He is the sole named shareholder of a group called the Conservative Friends of the Middle East and North Africa.

It is a matter of public record that Amersi made part of his fortune doing deals in 2005 with a business empire that a Swiss tribunal found to be controlled by an associate of Vladimir Putin. Amersi was accused in a separate 2006 lawsuit in the southern district of New York of trying to “extort” a $2bn payment from a businessman on behalf of a Russian oligarch.

Russia and China want to influence British politics. One way to do it is to give money to the ruling party and run front organisations

In 2002, an English high court judge described Amersi’s conduct as “lamentable” and his evidence as “unreliable”. Amersi told the FT that the judge behaved like a “farmer” who did not understand the sophisticated world of business. When I spoke to him, he alleged that the judge was biased. He added: “I believe in freedom of the press.” Asked why then he was threatening Soames and Leslie, he said that it would be for the courts to decide the truth of the matter. He added that he had made $7m by the time he ended his dealings with Russia in 2007 and the money had gone on an apartment in Dubai and not to the Conservative party. As for the New York court case, he denied he had ever been involved in extortion.

He appears determined to go to court and perhaps the truth will come out there. But as anyone who has followed Russian attempts to manipulate western democracies will know, this story has not come from nowhere.

I have spoken to many Conservative sources who are concerned about the way their party is heading and equally concerned that the security services are evading their responsibilities. One security source said MI5 could not intervene in party political matters. He quoted the “Wilson doctrine”, Harold Wilson’s rule that the security services should not tap the phones of MPs. As no one is suggesting they should, but should, rather, look at attempts to manipulate governments, the response missed every available point. I should add that the Observer tried to talk to MI5 but, perhaps inevitably, it didn’t answer our questions.

Let me move away from the Amersi case to explain why there is so much fear about where Johnson is taking party and country. Russia and China want to influence British politics. One way to do it is to give money to the ruling party and run front organisations. In the 2010s, Sergey Nalobin of the Russian embassy set up the Conservative Friends of Russia. In 2015, his diplomatic visa was revoked after the security services intervened.

What would happen to a Conservative Friends of Russia today? Who would the security services warn if they could pluck up the courage to do their duty? The intelligence and security committee’s Russia report explained why MI5, MI6 and the National Crime Agency backed away from investigating Russian involvement in the Brexit referendum. It was a political “hot potato” and no one wanted to face the backlash from the right that scrutiny might bring. The report added that Russian money had created a growth industry of “lawyers, accountants, and estate agents” in London who acted as “enablers”.

One enabler is Ben Elliot, whose company Quintessentially provides “concierge services” to oligarchs, including advice on what art and wine to buy and on how to get their children into the best schools. Quintessentially has a Moscow office. There’s money there, so why not? Amersi was a client and was photographed enjoying a party with Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, Elliot’s aunt and wife of our future king.

In the past, MI5 would have talked to the cabinet secretary. But today’s cabinet secretary is Simon Case, who is relatively young and inexperienced and a Johnson appointee.

Which leaves our own dear prime minister. Such is the decadence of the Johnson regime, no one expects anything of it. Johnson has rich men pay for his holidays, his decorators and even the food on his plate. To say he is up for sale is to understate the case against him. He has already been bought.

The Johnson premiership marked our transition from a society with residual notions of honour to a country where money is all you need.

Once, you had to abide by a code if you wanted to join the establishment. If you were caught breaking it, you had to go for fear your vices might discredit the wider elite. Today, if you pay enough to the right politicians, they will offer you a concierge service and ignore anyone who asks boring questions about the national interest. The old Britain of good chaps who could be relied on, occasionally, to do the right thing has died. We do not have a government of good chaps any more, only of bad actors.

Nick Cohen is an Observer columnist


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