A UK Cabinet minister endorsed a telecoms firm that gave £21,500 to Conservative MPs

Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Oliver Dowden, Conservative Party MP for Hertsmere, leaves 10 Downing Street in London.
Culture secretary Oliver Dowden.

  • EXCLUSIVE: A firm that gave £21,500 to Tory MPs received support from a senior minister.
  • Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary, spoke at the virtual launch of IX Wireless’s network.
  • James Wharton, a Conservative peer and donor, is a director of the firm’s controlling company.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

A telecoms company that gave more than £20,000 to Conservative MPs benefitted from the ringing endorsement of a senior UK Cabinet minister, Insider can reveal.

Oliver Dowden, the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), appeared at a virtual launch event for IX Wireless’s broadband network in Blackburn, England, in early June.

Dowden’s department is responsible for the UK communications regulator, Ofcom.

On Wednesday, seven Conservative backbench MPs declared a total of £21,500 in donations from IX Wireless between January and July 2021. Dowden was not one of them.

Here are two entries Wednesday showing the donations:

IX Wireless donation record Matt Vickers
A parliamentary record of a donation from IX Wireless to Conservative MP Matt Vickers.

IX Wireless donation record Simon Fell
A parliamentary record of donations from IX Wireless to Conservative MP Simon Fell.

In a promotional video released by IX Wireless, Dowden can be seen in his ministerial office speaking with IX Wireless executives:

IX Wireless Blackburn Launch from on Vimeo.

They include its founder, the businessman Tahir Mohsan, and CFO Philip Walker.

Dowden praised the firm and its Blackburn network, saying: “I am delighted to join you for the virtual opening of your Blackburn gigabit network, which is really going to provide some of the fastest broadband on the planet to tens of thousands of people across the North West.

He describes its work as “part of this government’s once-in-a-lifetime upgrade to the digital infrastructure.”

“I would like to really pay tribute to you and other alternative network providers in that mission, particularly in the North West. The Blackburn network has been built in only nine months and I know you have got very exciting ambitions to reach another 250,000 premises this year and to reach 4 million premises by 2025.”

Dowden’s claim the network had only been built in only nine months is at odds with previous releases from the firm, which first announced the network in mid-2019, ISPreview reported.

Dowden tied the company’s work in with the government’s wider “leveling up” agenda, saying: “I think this is some of the most important work that we are doing in government, particularly in our bid to level up the north and the rest of the UK.”

Dowden said he hopes to support the company in the future “through many many more moments just like this.”

Companies House records show IX Wireless is controlled by Cohiba Communications. One of Cohiba’s three directors is James Wharton, a former Conservative MP who now sits in the House of Lords as a Tory peer.

Wharton’s entry on the House of Lords’s register of interests says he is providing consultancy services to IX Wireless.

Another of his clients is the firm Aquind, which has similarly made donations to Conservative MPs and gained the support of government ministers, as well as lobbying them, The Times of London reported.

Wharton is also the chair of the Office for Students and has made political donations to the Conservative party while claiming furlough support from the government, Insider has previously reported.

Most of the MPs who received funds from IX Wireless represent constituencies near the area the firm are planning to build their network in northwestern England.

But one MP, Matt Vickers, holds a constituency on the other side of the country – Wharton’s former seat of Stockton South.

Anneliese Dodds MP, chair of the opposition Labour Party, told Insider: “Boris Johnson’s decision to reward James Wharton with a peerage continues to pay off for the Conservatives.

“This isn’t the first time we’ve heard about companies with links to Johnson’s chum dishing out cash to Tory MPs.

“Day after day we hear of new cases of Tory sleaze. The Conservatives have to clean up their act and put an end to this grubby cronyism.”

Steve Goodrich, Head of Research and Investigations at Transparency International UK told Insider: “When elected to Parliament, it is critical our representatives scrupulously avoid any activity that could give the perception of being in the pocket of vested interests.

“Donations from companies and wealthy individuals have the potential to create conflicts of interest if the concerns of MPs’ financial backers are at odds with those of their constituents.

“Voters need to be able to trust that decisions are always being taken in the public interest and not on the basis of a commercial relationship.”

A DCMS spokesperson told Insider: “We work closely with the telecoms sector to boost digital connectivity and level up the country and Ministers regularly support industry announcements.

“This event was handled by the department in the usual way and the Secretary of State has no personal connection to the company in question.”

Insider asked DCMS if Dowden was aware of the links to Conservative Party figures or donations when he launched the network, but the department did not respond to this question.

Insider contacted Wharton and IX Wireless but did not receive a comment by time of publication.

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Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party is now heavily bankrolled by the property sector, new figures show

Boris Johnson
Boris Johnson

  • Boris Johnson’s Conservatives took more than £60 million from the property sector in the last decade.
  • This is more than one-fifth of all reportable donations received by the party, the highest ratio of any UK party.
  • Campaigners say the financial reliance puts ministers “under pressure to provide exclusive access.”
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party has an “unhealthy financial reliance” on donations from the property sector, campaigners have warned, as they revealed new figures setting out the scale of support given to the party.

The research by Transparency International UK found that between January 2010 and March 2020, £60.8 million was given to the Conservatives from individuals and companies within the property sector.

This figure is more than a fifth of the reportable donations received by the Conservatives, the highest ratio of any political party in the UK.

Much of that money came from a small number of individuals, with one in every ten pounds of reported donations to Conservative Party HQ between 2015 and 2019 coming from just ten donors.

Duncan Hames, a former Liberal Democrat MP and Director of Policy at Transparency International UK, told Insider: “While it is no secret that political parties receive much of their funding from a relatively small number of donors, the extent to which the Conservative Party depends financially on those with major property interests is of serious concern.

“An unhealthy financial reliance on those with vested interests in one sector puts ministers under pressure to provide exclusive access which creates a real risk that decisions are skewed in their favour. Breaking this dependence is key to removing the risk of undue influence and freeing government to explore bolder solutions to address the housing crisis.”

Ties between the Conservative Party and the property sector is not limited to donations, with hundreds of meetings reported between ministers and groups lobbying on property issues.

Transparency International UK’s analysis of government reports of ministerial meetings found there were 669 meetings to discuss housing issues between January 2017 and March 2020.

Individual Conservative MPs also have strong links to the sector. Insider reported last month that the former Welsh Secretary minister Alun Cairns held meetings with a Singaporean firm that owned a £500 million property empire leased to the UK government. Since leaving his ministerial post, he has taken a £30,000 a year job with the firm.

Anneliese Dodds MP, chair of the opposition Labour Party, said: “It’s no wonder the Conservatives are resisting more transparency on property ownership, when party coffers are stuffed full of so much cash from major overseas property tycoons.

“This is yet another example of how the rules around transparency for lobbying ministers aren’t fit for purpose. We need to know who is lobbying ministers, what they want from government and what is discussed when they meet.

“We need urgent reform. It cannot be the case that it is one rule for the Conservatives and another for everyone else.”

Duncan Hames said: “Access and potentially influence in UK politics remains woefully opaque. We know more about those seeking to shape planning decisions in rural Ireland than we do about private interests trying to shape decisions and housing policy in Whitehall.

“Time and time again we see government departments failing to follow their own transparency rules while the limited statutory register of consultant lobbyists only paints a tiny part of this picture. A major overhaul of the UK’s lobbying rules is needed to increase transparency and ensure there are fewer corners for impropriety to hide.”

The group proposes an end to the influence of big donors in politics by introducing a £10,000 limit on donations from individuals and companies per donor per year.

A Conservative Party spokesperson said: “Government policy is in no way influenced by the donations the Party receives – they are entirely separate.

“Donations to the Conservative Party are properly and transparently declared to the Electoral Commission, published by them, and comply fully with the law. Fundraising is a legitimate part of the democratic process. The alternative is more taxpayer-funding of political campaigning, which would mean less money for frontline services like schools, police and hospitals.

“The Conservative Party is delivering on its manifesto commitments to deliver more homes, with new housing supply having risen to its highest levels for 30 years. Working with the housing industry is an essential part of getting new homes built and regenerating brownfield land.”

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A Conservative Lord has donated £8,000 to the Tories while claiming thousands of pounds in furlough cash

james Wharton donation conservatives
James Wharton

  • EXCLUSIVE: A Conservative peer has donated £8,000 to Boris Johnson’s party while his firm claims thousands of pounds in furlough payments.
  • Lord Wharton helped Johnson become Conservative leader and Prime Minister and was made a peer by Johnson in 2020.
  • His company made the donation while claiming up to £10,000 a month in furlough aid from the government.
  • Johnson’s government controversially appointed Wharton as chair of the independent universities regulator earlier this year.
  • An “urgent investigation” is required, campaigners say.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

A Conservative peer, who was put in charge of regulating universities by Boris Johnson’s government, has donated £8,000 to the party while claiming thousands of pounds through the furlough scheme at the same time.

Lord James Wharton is the sole director of GBMW Ltd, a consultancy firm he established after losing his seat of Stockton South in the 2017 general election.

Electoral Commission records released on Thursday show GBMW Ltd gave the Conservative Party £8,000 in March 2021.

His entry of registered interests says the company provides “strategic and management advice, and [runs] his private offices.”

At the same time, data released by HM Revenue and Customs shows GBMW Ltd was claiming furlough money from the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme. Figures show claims of between £1 to £10,000 per month made by GBMW Ltd from December 2020 to March 2021, the most recent point to which the data is available.

The scheme was presented by the UK government as a means to encourage firms who would otherwise be unable to retain staff during the pandemic, to do so.

However, the most recent set of accounts published at Companies House for GBMW Ltd show the firm had £186,216 in reserves at the end of June 2019, and employed two staff.

In February, The New European reported Wharton had set up a buy-to-let property business, JRF Housing, with the firm purchasing a £65,000 flat in Seascale and an £83,000 house in Stockton-in-Tees.

Anneliese Dodds MP, chair of the Labour Party, told Insider: “James Wharton’s career has gone from strength to strength since he helped Boris Johnson become Prime Minister. First a seat in the Lords, then a crony job. And the Conservative Party gets a four-figure cheque from his company.

“As ever with the Conservatives, it’s a case of one rule for them and their chums and another for everyone else.”

Lord Wharton was appointed to the House of Lords by Boris Johnson in August 2020 after being Johnson’s campaign manager in the 2019 Conservative Party leadership election.

In February 2021, Wharton was controversially appointed as the chair of the Office for Students by Education Secretary Gavin Williamson.

In a pre-appointment hearing, Wharton told Members of Parliament’s education committee that he would be retaining the Conservative whip in the post, which comes with a salary of £59,000 a year for two days a week.

He said: “I can absolutely assure the Committee that I recognize the crucial importance of the regulator being independent. I intend to uphold that and, where it comes into conflict, my first duty will be ensuring that that independence is given paramount importance and upheld.”

At the time, Labour’s shadow education secretary, Kate Green, called for an investigation into Wharton’s appointment. She wrote to the Cabinet Secretary Simon Case, warning that “the higher education sector and the wider public will be deeply concerned that this is simply another example of cronyism”.

“Is continuing to take the Conservative whip while in post consistent with the seven principles of public life, particularly his ability to make objective decisions?” she asked.

Susan Hawley, executive director at Spotlight on Corruption, told Insider: “This would appear to be a clear breach of the spirit of the furlough scheme. It also clearly undermines the independence of Wharton’s role as a regulator. This needs an urgent investigation.”

John O’Connell, chief executive of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, told Insider: “Justifiably, the government cast a wide net to catch everyone who could be affected by this coronavirus crisis. But recipients should keep in mind that this money ultimately comes from taxpayers, and support should only be sought if it’s really needed.”

Insider has contacted Lord Wharton for comment.

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Boris Johnson has told friends he is broke and has to accept free holidays and meals from donors. But the truth is likely very different

boris johnson money 2
Is Boris Johnson really hard up?

  • Multiple reports suggest Boris Johnson is experiencing serious money problems.
  • They claim that his recent divorce, multiple children, and reduced income have left him severely hard up.
  • The reports come amid other claims that he has sought to use donors to pay for his living costs.
  • Yet those who know Johnson well believe there is a much simpler explanation for him claiming hardship.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Boris Johnson has told friends that he is experiencing serious money problems.

Multiple reports suggest that the UK Prime Minister’s financial situation has led to him attempting, and in some cases succeeding, to use donations from the Conservative party, and other donors, to pay for:

Some commentators close to Johnson have suggested that these alleged money problems are due to the reduction in his income since entering Downing Street, combined with payments for his indeterminate number of children, and his divorce from his second wife Marina Wheeler.

Without having access to Johnson’s personal financial records it is impossible to know for sure quite how seriously to take these claims of his supposed hardship.

However, analysis of his declared income, as well as accounts of his past behavior, does give some reason to doubt it.

In the top 1% of earners

boris johnson

To begin with, it is worth pointing out that Johnson’s £160,000 salary as prime minister, while not stratospheric compared to some of his higher-earning peers, still puts him in the top 1% of all earners in the UK.

It’s also worth pointing out that, unlike most people, his housing, transport, and large parts of his living costs are also covered by the taxpayer.

And while he has had a significant reduction in his main sources of income since becoming prime minister, prior to his premiership he was one of the highest-earning politicians in the country, raking in over £275,000 a year from his Telegraph column on top of his salary as a politician.

And although he has been forced to abandon that column, he does still continue to make many thousands of pounds worth of royalties from his back catalogue of books every year, according to his register of interests.

In addition to this, he also declared £123,000 for a single speech in India in 2019, plus £88,000 from publishers Hodder and Staughton for an advance on as-yet unpublished book about Shakespeare.

Yet despite all this past and present income, a report by last week’s Sunday Times quoted a government source suggesting that the prime minister was so hard up that he had missed key emergency meetings at the start of the pandemic due to “working on a biography of Shakespeare, the money from which he needed to fund his divorce.”

A spokesperson for the publisher would not comment on whether Johnson had kept the advance for the as-yet-unpublished book, telling Insider only that “We have not scheduled the book to be released in the foreseeable future,” and “we never comment on our authors’ advances.”

He would ‘never ever buy a drink’

boris johnson pint
Associates of Johnson say he never buys a round.

So is Johnson really as hard-up as insiders and his media allies suggest, or is something else going on?

The Prime Minister’s biographer Sonia Purnell, who worked closely alongside Johnson in his early career as a journalist, is not convinced and believes there may be a much simpler explanation.

Rather than being desperately hard-up, Purnell suggests Johnson may simply be acting as he has always done, which is to find any excuse he can to avoid opening his wallet.

“All the way through his life he has been very successful at avoiding paying for anything,” Purnell tells Insider.

“It’s a game he has always played… I mean what does he spend his money on? It’s certainly not on buying people rounds of drinks in the pub.

“He’s never done that. All the time I was in Brussels… you would go to the bar and he would drink other people’s drinks and never ever buy a drink. I mean never.

Associates of Johnson say he also has a tendency not to pay his debts.

“One of the first things I was told by someone else when I arrived there is that he will ask you to lend him money,” Purnell says.

“Never do it because he asks everybody and never ever pays it back.”

His reputation for failing to pay money back even extended to one wary EU official quoted in Purnell’s biography of Johnson.

“You were always wary,” the official told Purnell.

“I was told never to lend him money as he never paid it back – so when he asked for the equivalent of £50, I refused.”

Empty envelopes

boris johnson money
A spoof banknote depicting UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson during the Green Party Autumn Conference on October 4, 2019 in Newport, Wales.

With multiple houses, book deals and a large salary, Johnson is, by any reasonable standard, well off.

Yet those who know Johnson describe him as almost comically tight with money.

When first dating his second wife he claims to have taken her to a meeting of the Hare Krishnas in order to avoid paying for lunch, which he told the Evening Standard in 2008 that she had “never forgiven me” for.

He continued the habit into later life, famously losing a £1,000 bet with his former employer Max Hastings, only to refuse to pay him.

After much nagging, Johnson finally agreed to hand over the money, only to then send Hastings an empty envelope.

“Whether or not Hastings actually needed the money is neither here nor there,” Purnell tells Insider.

“The fact he sat there, addressed an envelope, sealed it, and posted it and then there was nothing in it, is just bizarre behaviour.”

By all accounts, Johnson continued to be reluctant to pay his own way.

Indeed one of my own first encounters with Johnson was in the canteen in the basement of London’s City Hall when he was at the peak of his earning powers as Mayor of London and star Daily Telegraph columnist.

As I was standing waiting to pay for lunch with a fellow journalist, Johnson shuffled over and asked my companion to lend him £3 for his sandwich which, somewhat taken aback, he did.

Insiders say Johnson’s notoriously scruffy appearance was also in part due to his reluctance to spend money on clothes.

Indeed his outfits while mayor, which often constituted a strange combination of a faded grey jacket and municipal beanie hats, were in part, according to one former colleague, lifted by Johnson from Transport for London’s lost property office.

How bad was his divorce settlement?

boris johnson marina wheler
Boris Johnson (L) and wife Marina Wheeler (R) leave after casting their votes at a polling station on the EU Referendum in London, United Kingdom on June 23, 2016

At the centre of claims of Johnson’s supposed hardship is his divorce last year from his second wife.

However, Johnson’s biographer throws doubts on claims from Johnson insiders that their separation has left him penniless.

“I think it’s a rather sexist assumption to blame it on Marina,” Purnell tells Insider.

“After all she is a very high-earning person herself and always has been. She is a QC and has done very well.

“I just don’t buy that she took him to the cleaners.”

Are Johnson’s finances a security risk?

Boris Johnson Russia

Whether or not Johnson is genuinely hard-up, or is merely claiming to be in order to dip into his own pocket, some people believe the very existence of claims about his finances could be damaging.

The revelation that Johnson had received an unpaid debt order from a court led to one former spy telling Insider that such claims could be used to damage his reputation, while others suggested they could also potentially leave him open to blackmail by hostile states.

“All of these stories saying he is hard up is a bit like putting the begging bowl out,” Purnell told Insider.

“I imagine MI6 were quivering in their boots. It could be interpreted as an invitation to breach his own security and national security. You just don’t do that as prime minister.”

And while claims about Johnson seeking donations to pay for luxury takeaways and wallpaper have only belatedly emerged, it remains unclear who exactly he has sought these donations from.

“We have no idea who is giving him this money for wallpaper and holidays and all the rest of it,” Purnell says.

“And these are just the things we know about.”

What else have people paid for? His personal trainer, his nanny, the takeaways, everything. It just mounts up and makes him one big security risk right there in Downing Street.”

A spokesperson for Johnson was contacted for comment.

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Boris Johnson’s secretive funding of his luxury Downing Street flat refurbishment under investigation by the Electoral Commission

Boris Johnson electoral commission investigation downing street flat
Boris Johnson and Carrie Symonds.

  • Boris Johnson’s lavish Downing Street flat refurbishment is under investigation by the Electoral Commission.
  • They say there are “reasonable grounds” to suspect an offence has been committed.
  • The refurbishment was allegedly secretly funded by Conservative Party donors but not declared by the Prime Minister.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The Electoral Commission has opened a formal investigation into the funding of Boris Johnson’s lavish Downing Street renovation, saying that there is a “reasonable grounds to suspect an offence” had been committed.

Johnson ordered that his 11 Downing Street flat, which he shares with partner Carrie Symonds, should be refurbished, at a total cost of £88,000 after he became prime minister.

However, it has since emerged that the prime minister reportedly funded part of the refurb from donations given to the Conservative Party.

Under UK electoral law, all such donations need to be publicly declared, which Johnson did not do so within the legal time period.

Johnson later paid back the money, after it was revealed by the press.

A spokesperson for the Commission said on Wednesday that “We are now satisfied that there are reasonable grounds to suspect that an offence or offences may have occurred. We will therefore continue this work as a formal investigation to establish whether this is the case.

“The investigation will determine whether any transactions relating to the works at 11 Downing Street fall within the regime regulated by the Commission and whether such funding was reported as required.”

The refurbishment came after Johnson and Symonds were reportedly keen to get rid of the decoration left by his predecessor as prime minister, Theresa May, which they reportedly described as a “John Lewis nightmare” after the popular UK department store.

Johnson on Wednesday refused multiple times to say who had paid for the initial refurb, under questioning in the House of Commons from opposition Labour party leader Keir Starmer, insisting only that he had “covered” the final sum himself.

Watch Boris Johnson grilled over flat refurb at PMQs

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