Lunch with Rishi Sunak and the chance to hobnob with senior ministers? That will set you back £3,300 a person at the Conservatives’ conference business day this year.
Raising money from business leaders and wooing donors for more cash is a big game at the annual gathering, which is a profit-making endeavour for the party. Corporate leaders will be gathering for special closed sessions and policy roundtables on Monday with ministers, the events including Jeremy Hunt in conversation with the managing director of Barclays, CS Venkatakrishnan.
Some of Sunak’s existing donors will also be in attendance at conference, with £500 tickets for members of the most elite donor groups giving them access to the “blue room” for networking and a special prime minister’s reception.
The Conservatives are in serious competition with Labour to win donations from business leaders and entrepreneurs in a way they have not been for the best part of a decade under Jeremy Corbyn or Ed Miliband.
At the same time, some of the Tories’ biggest backers have fallen away after Brexit and the debacle of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss’s premierships. These are the biggest names and largest contributors to the party under Sunak, who will be bankrolling the next election.
Mohamed Mansour was the first to give a £5m donation to the Tories ahead of next year’s election. The ex-minister in the government of Egypt’s former autocratic leader Hosni Mubarak is also a billionaire businessman behind a sprawling conglomerate called Unatrac.
His donation in May was then matched later in the summer by Frank Hester, a healthcare tech entrepreneur whose firm the Phoenix Partnership (TPP) has won more than £135m in NHS contracts in recent years. These contracts were subject to normal tender rules. The £5m sums are the biggest one-off donations to the Tories in more than 20 years.
New donors on the block
With the loss of some Johnson-era big-name donors, Sunak’s party headquarters has turned to some fresh sources of cash. Some of the biggest contributors are Amit Lohia, nicknamed the Prince of Polyester on account of his clothing business, who gave a first donation of £2m this year, and Bassim Haidar, a Nigerian-born IT billionaire, who made his first donations this year, with £360,000 given since April. Another intriguing new donor is Cantervale, a company owned by financier and dealmaker Amanda Staveley, which gave a donation of £50,000 in February – having previously given a small sum in 2019.
Developers have long been cornerstones of the party’s fundraising efforts. Graham Edwards, who runs Telereal Trillium, one of the UK’s largest property firms, is the party’s new treasurer. He has contributed £3.5m since 2018, including a £2m donation earlier this year. Others include Thakeham Homes and Westcombe Homes, which have given £150,000 and £125,000 respectively in 2023, as well as Select International Group, a property firm, which is ultimately owned by businessman Mark Stott and gave £200,000 last December.
The scale and pace of hedge fund donations appears to have dropped off since the Brexit era. But Alan Howard, co-founder of Brevan Howard, made a £1m donation in May, having funded the party since 2018. Another big donor from the world of finance is Christopher Harborne, a Thailand-based cryptocurrency investor, who gave £500,000 to the party in the autumn of last year, as well as £1m to the office of Johnson.
A network of friends
A group of donors who give each other awards, have links to each other’s companies or charities and are involved in Conservative circles has emerged. One of the key figures is Selva Pankaj, who owns a higher education institution, Regent College London, and is sponsoring this year’s “blue room” for Tory VIPs at the party conference. He has given more than £600,000 to the Conservatives since 2015, most recently £125,000 this year.
Others include Maurizio Bragagni, an Italian-British businessman who owns cable manufacturer Tratos, who has given more than £300,000 since 2015, and Simon Blagden, who owns Avre Partnership, which has given £150,000 since 2020. The Tories’ biggest female donor, Lubov Chernukhin, the wife of a former deputy finance minister in Putin’s government, has loose connections to this circle as well. She has given about £2.5m to the party since 2012, continuing to donate this year. She acquired a British passport in 2011, which makes her donations legal.
Not many Tory donors have donated consistently throughout all the turmoil of the last 13 years and five prime ministers. One of the stalwarts is the Tory peer Michael Farmer, the hedge fund and metals trading boss once known as “Mr Copper”. He has given £10m since 2001, most recently £90,000 in May. Another is Christ Rea, a Northern Irish manufacturing mogul, who has given £1.5m since 2004 and most recently £125,000 in May. Richard Harpin, the founder of repairs business Homeserve, who has given £2.3m since 2008, is also still donating, with a £100,000 contribution in February. Alasdair Locke, who is the former chair of an energy company, has been giving since 2001 and recently donated £100,000. Michael Ashcroft, the peer, pollster and media owner, has also returned to donating, giving £50,000 earlier this year.
Peter Cruddas, the founder of CMC Markets, has given about £4.5m to the Tories since the days of David Cameron and he is now a peer. However, he stopped giving money after Johnson was removed from office and is now the president of the Conservative Democratic Organisation, a grassroots group sympathetic to the aims of the former prime minister. He last gave money to the central party in May last year.
Anthony Bamford is the Brexit-backing boss of JCB diggers who has given millions through his companies and helped fund Johnson’s wedding to Carrie, as well as giving the former prime minister free accommodation after he left No 10. His donations have not stopped entirely but appear to have significantly tailed off.
• This article was amended on 2 October 2023 to change the headline to better reflect the article.