Dirty money: Who paid to make Boris prime minister?

Trying to explain to outsiders just how the United Kingdom “chose” its new prime minister in July 2019 guarantees bafflement, followed by incredulity.

Of course, it wasn’t the “United Kingdom” choosing at all. Only 0.34 percent of the electorate got a say: those who paid £25 a year to be members of the ruling Conservative party. They were far from typical of the nation whose future they are decided: 86 percent are in the wealthiest social classes, 71 percent are male, 97 percent are white and 40 percent are over the age of 65.

Then, there was the “choice” between the two prime ministerial candidates, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt.

The front runner Boris Johnson, was a candidate about whom three high court judges said had behaved so deceptively in his private life that it constituted a “public interest matter”, something that the electorate was entitled to know when considering his fitness for high public office”. In June, police were called to the south London flat he shares with his girlfriend Carrie Symonds, after neighbours were alarmed by a loud row in the early hours during which they heard a woman shout “get off me”. After visiting the couple, the police decided to take no further action.

Johnson is seen by many of his own party colleagues as untrustworthy and a security risk.

The former foreign secretary fronted a political outfit – the pro-Brexit Vote Leave campaign – which broke the law and has been referred to the police for possible criminal charges. He has a catastrophic record of blunders in his previous job as foreign secretary, displaying “stunning incompetence”, for example, in the handling of the case of British mother incarcerated for years in an Iranian prison. And he has a long and well-documented history of making racist, homophobic and sexist slurs.

If this all sounds familiar, here’s some more. It emerged Johnson was also seen by many of his own party colleagues as a security risk – a view privately shared by a number of civil servants whose job is, well, security. As James Cusick reports for openDemocracy , Johnson seemed to think nothing of ditching his own close protection officers, while foreign secretary, to jet off to Italy to hang out with the son of a Russian oligarch and former KGB agent, a glamour model and other celebrities at a luxury villa where “nothing is off the menu”.

If this sounds like I had a preference in his two-man horse-race for the Conservative Party leadership, let me point you to the excellent work of my colleague Caroline Molloy, who has for many years documented the disastrous track record of Johnson’s rival, Jeremy Hunt, when he was in charge of the nation’s healthcare.

Poverty of choice in the contest would have been a wild understatement.

Plenty of column inches have already been devoted to the democratic outrage that a prime minister for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland was to be chosen by a small, self-selecting group of mainly white men in the south-east of England.

Johnson’s relationship with UK-based Russian billionaire Evgeny Lebedev is particularly valuable. Lebedev is the owner of the London Evening Standard newspaper. He once also owned The Independent.

Far less attention has been devoted to the valuable media friendships that the man who became prime minister cultivated: friendships which appear to have bought him an astonishing level of press subservience, just as Labour prime minister Tony Blair and Conservative prime miniter David Cameron formed close alliances with Rupert Murdoch.

Johnson’s relationship with Evgeny Lebedev, the newspaper proprietor, is particularly valuable – the Standard is a freesheet monopoly across the London, distributed to millions of commuters every week. When openDemocracy previously revealed a “cash for column inches” scandal involving the paper – which had sold positive advertorial dressed up as news to Uber, Google and other companies – we asked politicians from all the major UK parties to speak about the story on the record. None would. They were too afraid of the power the newspaper wielded – several even admitted this to us.

The Standard’s editor, George Osborne, used to be an outspoken Boris critic: as a "remain" in the European union advocate chancellor in Camreon's government, he had been on the opposite side to Johnson over Brexit, after which his paper frequently lambasted Johnson and other Tory hard-Brexiteers. But all that changed, with Osborne rumoured to be seeking a return to politics. To do so, he knew he'd need to curry favour with the new boss in No. 10.

The Standard ended up deeming Jiohnson “the candidate who might just get Britain feeling good about itself again… he can put his party, and his country, back on track.”

Johnson’s PR makeover was largely been credited to Lynton Crosby, the ruthless Australian PR guru who also ran his successful London mayoral bids – as well as Theresa May’s disastrous 2017 election campaign and Zac Goldsmith’s disgraceful, racist dog-whistling London mayoral bid.

This time round, Crosby has managed to enforce hitherto unseen discipline on Johnson. The gaffe-prone candidate stayed remarkably on script (or, more to the point, and said very little during the Tory leadership campaign.

We may never know who footed the bill for the lavish Boris PR splurge.

Online journal openDemocracy understands that the Boris campaign is one of the largest and most lucrative contracts in Crosby’s current portfolio. It is no pro-bono operation. We were told the #ElectBoris and the Leave operations inside Crosby’s firm, CTF Partners, were virtually inseparable contracts, funded on a scale that would dwarf big clients inside major lobbying companies.

The operation and business of these campaigns were so secretive even inside CTF itself that only those working on the Boris/Leave account – estimated to have been in play for at least two years – knew what it was actually going on.

And the question no one seemed willing to answer was: who paid for it all? We've asked CTF four times. They didn't answer.

We know about some of the candidates’ backers. In the summer openDemocracy revealed both Johnson and Hunt received substantial donations from a prominent climate change denier. But rules on donor transparency, which apply to UK general elections don’t apply to internal party contests. Instead, gifts to MPs are published only in their register of interests – which means we may not have the full details on who  bankrolled the campaigns for some time to come. And, thanks to the many holes in UK transparency laws, we may never know who footed the bill for the lavish Johnson PR splurge. But we do know who some of the clients they've had: including big tobacco, fossil fuel firms and Australia's meat industry.

This matters – even more than who got chosen for the top job. For the past two-and-a-half years, openDemocracy has been tracking the dark money that is fuelling Brexit, and is seeking to shape our politics. It’s taken us to some extraordinary places.

We now have a tantalising indication (which we can’t verify, because of a breathtaking political stitch-up), that the secretive backer(s) of Boris’s lavish PR operation may be the same, or linked to, the controversial £435,000 Brexit donation to the hard right Northern Ireland Democratic Unionist Party that propped up Theresa May's minoriry Tory government. (If we’re wrong, we’d be very happy to put the record straight – answers on a postcard, please.)

As we’ve traced the dark money seeking to influence politics in the UK and across Europe, the trail has time and again taken us to the US, where a growing alliance of  president Donald Trump-supporting extreme free-market libertarians and social conservatives wants to reshape the world in their image. Together, these networks seek to police people’s bodies, families and religion – and vehemently oppose any measures to tackle climate change. (See the excellent work of Claire Provost and colleagues mapping this.)

We’ve only scratched the surface. But when you start to look at this global picture, it’s less surprising that the miserable choice on offer in Britain today is between a prime minister whose bullishness about a no-deal Brexit – pushed by free-marketeers who want to turn Britain into an “offshore, low-tax haven” – led to a December 12 general election and another who is a social conservative, former foreign secretry Jeremy Hunt, who personally favours halving legal abortion limits. Oh, and both of them have repeatedly voted against measures to tackle climate change.

Nor is it surprising that they both vowed about their readiness for a no-deal Brexit, opening Britain up to a brutal trade deal with the US, where, as Trump let slip, “everything is on the table”, including the coveted NHS British health service. After all, the think tank, which has probably done most to shape the ideas of Brexit supporters – and effectively wrote the controversial “Malthouse compromise” on Brexit – have been funded by a right-wing US foundation dedicated to promoting the privatisation of healthcare.

*Mary Fitzgerald is Editor-In-Chief of openDemocracy.net.