A Cabinet minister has defended accepting donations from wealthy individuals with links to Russia and President Vladimir Putin, insisting the benefactors are “British citizens”.
It comes after The Times reported that 14 Cabinet ministers and members of Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), which published its long-awaited report into Russian interference in British democracy this week, had taken money from figures linked to Russia.
The committee’s report warned that unnamed Kremlin-linked figures had given money to UK political parties in a move that could see them deployed to “assist” Moscow.
The Times listed Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis as having personally received £25,000 from Lubov Chernukhin, a banker and the wife of Mr Putin’s former deputy finance minister, and £23,000 from Alexander Temerko, a former chief of a Russian arms company.
To effectively make the case we should treat some parts of British society, some British citizens, different to others is inappropriate, it's wrongBrandon Lewis
Other Cabinet ministers said to have accepted money, either personally or to their constituency branch, from the two Russia-linked individuals include Chancellor Rishi Sunak, Business Secretary Alok Sharma and Justice Secretary Robert Buckland.
Mrs Chernukhin has been donating to the Tories for a number of years, having been understood to have previously placed a winning bid of £160,000 at a 2014 Tory fundraiser to play a doubles game of tennis with Boris Johnson and then prime minister David Cameron.
Former party chairman Mr Lewis said the donations given to him were “properly declared”.
The Cabinet minister told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think we need to be fairly clear about this so we don’t get the facts wrong – these are British citizens.
“They are properly declared, we do not accept funds from foreign nationals.
“These are British citizens and I would absolutely defend the right of any British citizen, including the people you’ve outlined who have donated to myself and others, to play their full part in our democracy.
“That doesn’t just mean voting, that means supporting, if they want to, political parties and political candidates, and I’m very proud of the fact that, as a country, we allow British citizens to do that.”
He said, when asked about what the donors received in return, that the transactions were about supporting the Conservative Party.
Mr Lewis added: “We see donations coming in from people across British society – and these are British citizens.
“To effectively make the case we should treat some parts of British society, some British citizens, different to others is inappropriate, it’s wrong and I defend all British citizens’ rights to be able to promote support and vote for the party they want.”
But Labour former minister Chris Bryant accused the Government, during an urgent question on the ISC report in the Commons on Wednesday, of “giving out golden visas to dodgy Russian oligarchs”.
Speaking to the PA news agency, he said: “In Brandon Lewis’ case, when he was saying they (Mrs Chernukhin and Mr Temerko) were British citizens, I felt like saying ‘Yes, because you made them British citizens’.”
Mr Bryant added: “There are two things that can happen, one convenient process is that the husband or the wife gets British citizenship and then gives loads of money to the Tory Party.
“But the more standard version is, you say ‘I’ve got £2 million to invest’.
“What you actually do is just buy a house in London and you get your investor visa and bring your family in, you get to send your kids to posh schools in the UK, you get to go shopping at Harrods and so on, and you get all the freedoms of the West while still being able to make your money in Russia.
“And part of being part of the posh set is giving lots of money to the Tory Party.”
Questioned on the donations, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “I’m sorry, but we have a law a rule in our party that we don’t take foreign donations.
“But, what I don’t like to see is people automatically assuming is everybody who is associated with some country or other is in someway untouchable – we are not a racist country.
“We are a generous, welcoming, international, outgoing country.
“That’s the way we should be.
“Donations from foreigners are illegal and they should be handed back, but that I don’t think is what we’re talking about here.”
According to the Times, two members of the ISC, Tory MPs Theresa Villiers and Mark Pritchard, also received donations to their constituency branches from Mrs Chernukhin and Mr Temerko.
The report released this week on Russian involvement was produced by the committee’s previous membership, which neither Ms Villiers nor Mr Pritchard were part of during the time of the 18-month investigation.
Ex-environment secretary Ms Villiers reportedly received £2,000 through her local Chipping Barnet party in October last year from Mrs Chernukhin, who has given more than £1.7 million to the Tories since 2012.
Meanwhile, The Wrekin MP Mr Pritchard saw £5,000 donated by energy company Aquind, of which Mr Temerko is director, to his Shropshire constituency in June last year.