The Russian oligarchs who have donated £50,000 to a Norfolk MP

Brandon Lewis. Photo: PA / David Mirzoeff

Brandon Lewis is the only MP for Norfolk or Suffolk to receive large donations from Russian-born millionaires - Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

With the issue of Russian money and influence in British politics back in the spotlight, reporter Joel Adams looked at who has been donating to our MPs - and where the roubles have come from.

It costs money to run a political party - to employ staff and print brochures and create adverts and do polling - and in the UK most funding comes from donations.

In the six week run-up to the 2019 General Election for example, the Conservatives received £19.4m, including £13m from individuals and £6m from companies, while Labour received £5.4m, £5m of which was from trades unions. All parties also receive regular donations from supporters outside of election cycles.

The freedom to donate to the political party you support is, for some, a fiercely defended democratic freedom. By so doing you can help the party win elections and therefore help it introduce policies you agree with. 

Others argue state funding would be fairer. Polling by the Electoral Reform Society in 2016 revealed 77 per cent of people believe big donors "have too much influence on political parties".

With Russia's invasion of Ukraine has come a new focus on how, over the last 10-15 years, Russian millionaires and billionaires have brought their money to the UK, investing in property in London, and - once becoming UK citizens - donating to and influencing UK political parties.

The Conservative Party has received large donations from prominent Russians, totalling around £2m just since Boris Johnson became leader in July 2019. All sides insist money donated was obtained legally and without corruption, and the donations were legal and came from British citizens.

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This week a Labour MP called on the party to donate that money to charities providing humanitarian relief to the people of Ukraine.

Sixteen MPs represent the people of Norfolk and Suffolk, all but Clive Lewis in Norwich are Conservatives. But only one has received money with Russian links - so we tried to find out why.

Brandon Lewis MP

Brandon Kenneth Lewis, 50, has no ties to Russia.

He grew up in Romford, went to university in Buckinghamshire, and qualified as a barrister in London. He is now the MP for Great Yarmouth. He has a house in Essex and he works in Westminster where he currently has responsibility for the Northern Ireland Office.

So why has he received close to £50,000 from Russian emigres or their companies - people and companies who have no connection to Great Yarmouth?

He will not say.

Brandon Lewis, MP for Great Yarmouth. Photo: Bill Smith

Brandon Lewis defended the right of British citizens to donate to political parties

Earlier this month Mr Lewis told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “These are British citizens. They are properly declared, we do not accept funds from foreign nationals.

"I would absolutely defend the right of any British citizen, including the people who have donated to myself and others, to play their full part in our democracy."

He said, when asked about what the donors received in return, that the transactions were about supporting the party.

He said it was "inappropriate" to "treat some parts of British society, some British citizens, different to others".

Despite running for office on a transparency pledge following the expenses scandal - a pledge which has since been removed from his website - Mr Lewis has declined to answer our specific questions about these donations.

We asked why these people had chosen to donate to him, how many times he has met with his donors, whether they had asked for anything, why he received more donations in his year as Conservative Party Chairman, and what the money was spent on.

Theresa May and members of the cabinet - including Liz Truss - at the Goring Hotel, pictured with Lu

In this May 2019 photo from Liz Truss's Instagram account, Lubov Chernukhin (circled) is seen with six female Cabinet ministers and then-PM Theresa May - Credit: @elizabeth.truss.mp/Instagram

We also asked for his views on Tier One "investment" visas, by which many wealthy Russian-born citizens obtained their citizenship, and which have now been scrapped as a security risk. Our full list of questions is printed below.

In reply, his office sent this statement from an unnamed spokesperson: “Brandon has never accepted foreign donations - as they are illegal. 

“There are many people in this country of Russian origin who are British citizens. Like any other British citizen, they have the right to donate to political parties, their representatives and participate fully in our democratic process. 

“All Brandon's donations are properly and transparently declared to the Electoral Commission, published by them and comply fully with the law."

Bob Price. Photo: Big C

Cllr Bob Price is chairman of Great Yarmouth conservative association. He said Mr Lewis "should and would" reject such a donation today. - Credit: Big C

However Mr Lewis’ constituency association chairman, councillor Bob Price, was more forthcoming.

He insisted all donations had been legal, calling Mr Lewis a “very ethical man”, but added: “I do believe in the current circumstances the offer of such a donation would be, at best, politely refused. Would be and should be.

“I’m sure Brandon would not accept a donation of that sort if it was made today.”

He also said his party should no longer accept donations from British citizens who can trace their citizenship back to investment visas.

So who are these donors whose money the association chairman says should be turned away today?

Lubov Chernukhin

Mrs Lubov Chernukhin, 49, gave Mr Lewis £5,500 on February 26, 2019 and followed it up with another £4,000 the next day, bidding on a raffle. She sent him a further £5,000 that June, and last May £10,000 for a total of just under £25,000.

Her donations were not to the Conservative Party or to the Great Yarmouth Conservative Association but to Brandon Lewis directly. 

The donations are part of more than £2m that she has given the Conservative Party since becoming a British citizen a decade ago, including paying £140,000 at auction for a game of doubles tennis with Boris Johnson and then-PM David Cameron in 2014.

She is by some way the biggest female donor in British political history.

© Guilhem Baker. 26/11/2018 Court 15 in the Rolls Building (the largest specialist centre for the re

Lubov Chernukhin photographed leaving the High Court in London after giving testimony in a civil suit between her husband and billionaire Oleg Deripaska - Credit: Guilhem Baker

Mrs Chernukhin was born Lubov Golebeva to Russian parents in Kazakhstan in 1972 and attended a prestigious business school in the United States. Working in the financial sector she moved to the UK in 2003 and married Vladimir Chernukin in London in November 2007.

Back in 1999 Mr Chernukhin had been installed as deputy chairman of a state bank by Vladimir Putin, overseeing huge loans to Russia’s regions and to newly-privatized, formerly-state owned companies.

That bank, VEB.R, was this week placed under sanctions by the UK following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Mr Chernukhin rose to prominence in Russia, earning the nickname “Putin’s Protege” and was made director of the national airline Aeroflot before being given the Order Of Honour by Putin. 

Shortly afterwards however he left the country, in 2004, after a number of his friends and allies were arrested. He obtained a British visa and he and his wife became British citizens.

The couple now own a £38m London residence overlooking Regent’s Park as well as a £10m mansion in Oxfordshire, although most of their assets are in the names of overseas-registered corporations.

In 2020 leaked files obtained by investigative journalists showed that more than £6m of Vladimir Chernukhin’s wealth came from a British Virgin Islands company linked with Russian parliamentarian Suleyman Kerimov.

Kerimov was sanctioned by the US in 2018 who were targeting those they said “play a key role in advancing Russia’s malign activities”. 

Lawyers for the Chernukhins have stated that Vladimir did not accumulate any of his wealth in a corrupt manner and that Lubov’s donations have not been funded by improper means or been affected by the influence of anyone else.

Alexander Temerko

In July 2014 Brandon Lewis received £10,000 from a company called Offshore Group Newcastle (OGN), of which Alexender Temerko was vice chairman. Mr Temerko followed that up with personal donations of close to £7,000 in 2016 at a fundraising auction, and close to £5,000 the following year for a total of just under £22,000.

Again, all the money went to Mr Lewis directly.

Alexander Temerko, 39, a former senior figure in the Yukos oil company, outside Bow Street Magistart

Alexander Temerko photographed in London in 2005. The Ukrainian-born businessman is a prominent critic of Vladimir Putin. - Credit: PA

Ukrainian-born Mr Temerko, 55, made his money in the arms industry and has been one of President Putin’s fiercest critics since fleeing Russia in 2004.

He moved to Moscow aged 17 and found work after university in Boris Yeltsin’s government, taking a number of roles in the Russian defence ministry. 

He was deputy chairman of Russian oil company Yukos until fraud charges were levelled at him - charges he has always insisted were trumped up and political - and he fled to London.

The High Court in London declined a Russian request for Temerko’s extradition in December 2005, saying it was politically motivated.

Over the last decade since becoming a British citizen he has donated more than £1m to the Conservative Party and has become close to the leadership, paying £90,000 for a bronze bust of David Cameron at a fundraising auction in 2013 which he then donated it to a London private members club. 

He and Boris Johnson are known to call each other “Sasha”, the Russian diminutive of Alexander, which is the Prime Minister’s real first name.

Temerko also became part of Conservative Party donor club The Leader’s Group, where £50,000 in annual membership fees grants access to the prime minister and other senior ministers at dinners, cocktail receptions and other events. 

He told Reuters that together with his company OGN Group he had sponsored 40 members of parliament in previous elections. 

In Feburary 2019 he said: “My business was one of the biggest businesses that supported the Conservative Party and its deputies in northern England.”

For many years he has publicly called for the UK to supply weapons to Ukraine to assist in its fight with pro-Russian separatists in the East.

Last month he told the Times “We need to stop our country acting like a financial pumping house, stop it from being a market that makes Putin’s cronies, Putin’s elite, richer and richer.” 

Mr Temerko has been contacted for comment.

Brandon Lewis transparency pledge

This transparency pledge appeared on Mr Lewis' website between 2009 and 2014 but has since been removed. A spokesman said there is a fundamental difference between expenses and donations and all have been published as a matter of public record. - Credit: WayBack Archive


The questions Mr Lewis has not answered

1. Your constituency is in Norfolk where these people have no business interests – why have they donated to you?

2. Why have you accepted five-figure donations from individuals whose wealth is linked to the Putin regime?

3. What has the money been spent on?

4. Will you accept further donations from Alexander Temerko or Lubov Chernukhin, or from any other Russian oligarchs?

5. How many times have you met Mrs Chernukhin or her husband, or Mr Temerko, or their representatives?

6. Have you called either donor or their representatives to condemn the invasion of Ukraine?

7. Do you agree with the scrapping of the Tier One investment visa scheme by which so many foreign-born donors have become British citizens?

8. Will you be donating any part of this money to charities aimed at humanitarian relief for the people of Ukraine?

9. Why did you accept so many more donations, from so many more sources, for such greater amounts, in the period of time you were chairman of the Conservative Party?

10. Why has the expenses transparency pledge been removed from your website and why do you refuse to answer questions from the press about where donated money comes from, why it was accepted, or what it was spent on? 

A: In response to this last question a spokesman said: “"All Brandon's donations and expenses are transparently declared and are a matter of public record. There is a fundamental difference between expenses and donations. Donations and fundraising are part of our democratic process."