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The Guardian view on Tory sleaze: buying access, baubles and influence

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Boris Johnson’s government has displayed a penchant for ignoring standards of openness, attacking key democratic institutions and subverting governance norms. Mr Johnson revels in thumbing his nose at convention. Last December he outrageously used his privilege as prime minister to ennoble a Conservative party donor who had been rejected by the Lords appointments commission. But repeat offending raises questions over whether such insouciance is meant to distract from allegations of sleaze.

This new model of party business seems to have coincided with the arrival of Ben Elliot as co-chair of the Conservative party. He raised a record £37m for the Tories’ 2019 general election campaign. The party is now refusing to publish the membership of secretive clubs for donors giving up to £250,000 a year that hold regular meetings with Mr Johnson and his chancellor. That reluctance may be explained by this week’s revelations in the Pandora papers. The documents shed new light on the use by some donors of offshore finance and how it lubricates capitalism in hydrocarbon-rich autocracies. Mr Johnson’s claim that donations were vetted “in the normal way” suggests the Conservatives aren’t that bothered about where their money comes from.

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It emerged that Mohamed Amersi, who funded Boris Johnson’s campaign to become prime minister, earned £65m for six years’ work including a short stint advising on a deal in Uzbekistan later found to be a bribe for the then president’s daughter. He denies any wrongdoing. Paradoxically, Mr Amersi, who along with his partner has donated £750,000 to the Conservatives, did British politics a favour this year by blowing the whistle on an “access capitalism” scheme for major Tory donors. Lubov Chernukhin, who donates enough to the Tories to qualify for meetings with Mr Johnson, derives some of her wealth from an offshore empire run with her husband, Vladimir. The perception will be that there is one rule for this government and its friends and another for the rest of us. The files show Russian oligarch Viktor Fedotov co-owned a company once accused of participating in a massive corruption scheme. Mr Fedotov denies all accusations of fraud. The tycoon is now the majority owner of Aquind, an entirely separate UK company. While Mr Fedotov has never made any personal donations to the Tories, his company Aquind has. Aquind is seeking permission from the government to build a £1.2bn electricity cable between France and the UK, which the business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, is due to rule on.

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However, it is hard to see how Mr Kwarteng can make such a judgment and uphold the Nolan principle that those in public office “must avoid placing themselves under any obligation to people or organisations that might try inappropriately to influence them in their work”. Almost one in 10 Conservative MPs and their local parties received money – totalling £700,000 – from Aquind and another firm backed by Mr Fedotov. The matter raises another potential conflict of interest as the Soviet-born British businessman Alexander Temerko, a friend of the prime minister and a co-owner of Aquind, has together with the company donated £1.1m to the Tories. There is no suggestion that Mr Temerko had any knowledge of the possible origins of Mr Fedotov’s wealth. Mr Kwarteng expressed support for the project after he was lobbied by Mr Temerko. A decision by the business secretary that favours the company could suggest that money can buy influence or access. It is the appearance of impropriety here that gives reason for concern.

Mr Johnson must not allow governance standards to be diminished, with negative effects for the economy and national security. The disclosures will stoke the popular suspicion that donations buy baubles and influence. But they also underline a worrying trend: that those willing to pay get privileged relationships with power. A government is hobbled when it looks so dependent on wealthy friends. Politics risks being subject to corporate capture. Being open would help. Rather than compromising or undermining checks and balances in the system, ministers should uphold them.