From Russia with love?

Boris Johnson is openly critical of Russia - but do his donations tell a different story?

21st June 2019

It all started with a tennis match.

The story has become political folklore: at a 2014 Tory fundraising event at the Hurlingham Club, Lubov Chernukhin made a £160,000 auction bid. The prized lot? A tennis match with David Cameron and Boris Johnson.

Chernukhin, a significant long-time Conservative Party donor, is married to Putin’s former deputy finance minister who served in the Kremlin during the early 2000s.

Although he’s widely believed to have fallen from Putin’s favour some years ago, a spokesperson for the Conservatives was nevertheless forced to reiterate that the Party “does not accept foreign donations” and that “Ms Lubov Chernukhin has lived in Britain for many years and is a British citizen, which gives her the democratic right to donate to a political party.”

Such was the intensity of speculation that Russians were paying to secure influence over the British Government, Johnson only confirmed in 2018 that the tennis match had in fact taken place.

He appeared on The Andrew Marr Show to declare: ‘It’s very important that we do not allow a miasma of suspicion about all Russians in London — and indeed all rich Russians in London — to be created.’

And in the wake of the Salisbury nerve agent attack which left former Russian military officer and double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in an “extremely serious condition”, Johnson attempted to defend the credibility of a party known for taking Russian-connected money and yet simultaneously take a hard stance against a probable Russian attack on British soil.

As foreign secretary, he appeared on The Andrew Marr Show to declare: “We have no quarrel with the Russian people… It’s very important that we do not allow a miasma of suspicion about all Russians in London — and indeed all rich Russians in London — to be created.”

But despite Johnson’s breezy positivity, Anglo-Russian relations are no love affair; currently they could probably be described as tense at best.

One British company to suffer from Russian sanctions is JCB, whose CEO Anthony Bamford is one of the major donors to Johnson’s leadership campaign

Earlier this week the Foreign Office called on Russia to cooperate following four suspects being charged with murder five years after flight MH17 was was brought down over Eastern Ukraine. Following the crash which killed 283 passengers and crew, EU sanctions on Russia are still in place.

One British company to suffer from the sanctions imposed in 2014 was JCB, whose CEO Anthony Bamford is one of the major donors to Johnson’s leadership campaign. Lashing out at the trade restrictions in 2014, Bamford attacked EU diplomats for “putting British jobs at risk.”

Bamford’s aversion to Europe has a long tail — in 2000, JCB was fined £22m for engaging in “restrictive distribution practice”. Setting the fine — one of the largest ever imposed under European competition law — EU official Mario Monti referred to the world’s best-known excavation firm as a “cartel”.

He retreated into a misty-eyed reverie about his ‘Muslim great-grandfather’

Staunchly Eurosceptic, Bamford has donated almost £70,000 to Johnson since January this year through repeated company donations via JCB and a £20,000 personal donation in May.

Bamford also employs Brexiteer David Davis as an external adviser to the tune of £60,000 a year, translating to an hourly rate of £3,000.

Johnson has called Russia a “brutal, corrupt regime” and even likened Putin to Hitler in the run-up to last year’s Russia World Cup, but he’s no stranger to going back on strong words.

On Tuesday’s debate, he attempted to gloss over his likening of Muslim women who wear the veil to “letterboxes” and “bank robbers” and retreated into a misty-eyed reverie about his “Muslim great-grandfather” instead — a tactic which was met with reactions ranging from bemusement to outrage on social media.

So given his connections to Russian money, influence and business interests, can Johnson really hope to be impartial in his future dealings with Putin if he becomes PM?

Also part of our Tory leadership coverage:

Where are the Tory leadership hopefuls getting their campaign money?

Foreign links to the Tory leadership election

7 things we learned about the Tory candidates from their donations

Rory Stewart: The billionaires’ choice

Main image: Matthew Dawkins

21st June 2019