Stuffing the Topper

Glen Newey

Under ten months till the UK general election, and the parties are busy pushing round the hat. Last week Labour threw a fundraiser at the Camden Roundhouse, at £15,000 for a seat at the top table. But that's barely a groat in the cap beside the Tories' prowess at stuffing the topper.

As the Bureau for Investigative Journalism has brought to light, this time last year the party shmoozed donors at the Hurlingham Club in Old Billingsgate. It seems the catering wasn't up to much: rhubarb for pud and no bubbly – a nod to austerity, supposedly, though a bottle of fizz signed by Margaret Thatcher gavelled at £45,000. Still, the blowout's philanthropic intent is plain from the presence at Boris Johnson's table of an asylum seeker granted political refugee status last year. Happily, Andrey Borodin and his wife have not had to kip down in a hostel in Dalston and survive on a fiver a day. One-time boss of the Bank of Moscow, Borodin owns Park Place in Henley-on-Thames, Britain's costliest house, acquired by him in 2011 for £140 million. He paid £40,000 for a portrait of Thatcher auctioned by the Tories at the Billingsgate bash. Borodin – like Vladimir Putin, an ex-KGB man – has a well-founded fear of prosecution, if not of persecution, should he return to his motherland. He remains under an Interpol arrest warrant, charged with 'aggravated swindling' by the Russian authorities for allegedly misplacing a billion roubles or so while running the Bank of Moscow into the ground. He and his erstwhile deputy, Dmitry Akulinin, are also accused of trousering some 6.7 billion roubles via shell firms registered in Cyprus; in 2011 the Russian government bailed out the bank for $14 billion.

Such charges may of course be politically motivated, though an independent audit by Deloitte concurred with the Russian authorities. Still, it's an ill wind that blows no oligarch any wonga. Another art-loving Russian fugitive, Alexander Temerko, wadded out £90,000 for a head-sized bust of David Cameron at last summer's bunfight. Like Borodin, Temerko has done well by the UK's open-arms refugee policies: he's wanted by Russian prosecutors for fraud and conspiracy to pervert the course of justice, but his extradition was stopped in the UK courts. Temerko is in the Tories’ Leader's Group, a club for pals of the premier that levies annual subs north of £50,000. It’s turned out to be a shrewd punt: Temerko's wind energy firm Offshore Group Newcastle, which has tipped nearly £350,000 into the Tory coffers in the last couple of years, has seen its investment repaid with £4.5 million from the government's Regional Growth Fund.

Lest the Hurlingham Club guest-list be thought Kremlinophobic, the organisers hedged their bets by also inviting along Vasily Shestakov, Putin's judo buddy and long-time fixer. Temerko wasn’t asked to the top table or even Boris's, but got to savour the repartee of Peter Stringfellow and Eric Pickles instead. Among those who did get to chew the rhubarb with Dave and Sam was Darko Horvat. Party sources stonewalled when queried about Horvat's presence hard by the seat of power; maybe he was there to advise on the problem of chronic indebtedness. Once third in the Slovenian rich list, Horvat took a haircut, amounting to whole-body depilation, when an over-leveraged property venture in Las Vegas launched just before the crash (he already owned the Hotel Plaza in New York, flogged by Donald Trump to finance divorcing Ivana) belly-flopped, leaving Darko with several hundred million dollars in liabilities and just a few hectares of Nevadan rubble as collateral. He was a trailblazer in the Slovenian privatisation drive that doubled the national debt and lumbered the country's banks with toxic assets. Darko now slums it in St Moritz with only £180 million or so to his name. Also at the Camerons' table was Sir John Ritblat, the UK property billionaire whose business career was launched with a company bought from the asset-stripper Jim Slater.

The rich really are different – they have more of other people’s money. For those on the inside, the access bazaar is a win-win: you fund my election, I push your racket. Wonga, widely hailed as a great white among loan sharks, happily bought ear-time for £1500 a pop at the 2012 Tory conference, when payday loans firms were under fire for exorbitant interest rates. When challenged on this, a government spokesman said, unanswerably, that renting ministers raises 'a lot of money'.