'It's not about somebody's background': Donors with Russia-links are ‘British citizens', says Brandon Lewis

Brandon Lewis Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

A Cabinet minister has defended accepting donations from wealthy individuals with links to Russia and President Vladimir Putin, insisting the benefactors are “British citizens”.

Brandon Lewis told ITV News he "absolutely defends" their right to take part in the "democratic process" - and suggested it would be racist to claim otherwise.

It comes after The Times reported that 14 Cabinet ministers and members of Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), which published its long-awaited report into Russian interference in British democracy this week, had taken money from figures linked to Russia.

The committee’s report warned that unnamed Kremlin-linked figures had given money to UK political parties in a move that could see them deployed to “assist” Moscow.

The Times listed Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis as having personally received £25,000 from Lubov Chernukhin, a banker and the wife of Mr Putin’s former deputy finance minister, and £23,000 from Alexander Temerko, a former chief of a Russian arms company.

According to the Electoral Commission, Brandon Lewis received £10,000 in February from Mrs Chernukhin, with another £5,000 in June last year.

Mrs Chernukhin is said to have previously placed a winning bid of £160,000 at a 2014 Tory fundraiser to play a doubles game of tennis with Boris Johnson and then prime minister David Cameron.

Former party chairman Mr Lewis insisted "it's not about somebody's background".

The Cabinet minister told ITV News: "Well, first of all, let’s be very clear, I think people need to just check their facts.

"I have, and other colleagues in the Conservative Party, received funds from British citizens.

"I absolutely defend the right of any British citizen to play their full part in democracy - that’s voting, that’s donating to political parties.

"Actually to claim otherwise we’re saying that certain parts of British society - some level of British citizen - has less rights than others.

"Some might argue that’s racist. I am absolutely defensive of people’s right to fulfill their full part in the democratic process."

Alexander Temerko, pictured here in 2005, has donated thousands to the Conservative party. Credit: PA

He added that the Tory party "are different" to Labour in that they don’t get "the big union payouts", insisting "we raise money from people by showing we’re going to do good things for the country".

"I have to say I’ll go further, I’m really proud that more and more British citizens, not just voted for us in December last year but also wanted to support the Conservative Party to be a government to deliver a good strong economy," he added.

Boris Johnson said the party does not accept donations from people without UK passports.

Two members of the ISC – Tory MPs Theresa Villiers and Mark Pritchard – were flagged as having received donations to their constituency branches from Mrs Chernukhin and Mr Temerko.

The report released this week on Russian involvement was produced by the committee’s previous membership, which neither Ms Villiers or Mr Pritchard were part of during the time of the 18-month investigation

The Times reported that former environment secretary Ms Villiers received £2,000 through her local Chipping Barnet party in October last year from Mrs Chernukhin, who has given more than £1.7 million to Tories since 2012.

Meanwhile, The Wrekin MP Mr Pritchard saw £5,000 donated from the energy company Aquind, of which Mr Temerko is director, to his Shropshire constituency in June last year.

There is no suggestion of any wrongdoing by either MP.

Former environment secretary Theresa Villiers, now a member of the ISC Credit: Aaron Chown/PA

Cabinet ministers said to have accepted money – either personally or to their constituency branch – from the two Russia-linked individuals include Chancellor Rishi Sunak, Business Secretary Alok Sharma and Justice Secretary Robert Buckland.

During an urgent question about the Russia report in the Commons on Wednesday, Labour former minister Chris Bryant accused the Government of continuing to hand out “golden visas” to “dodgy Russian oligarchs”.

He said: “What mystifies me is that Government ministers are still giving out golden visas to dodgy Russian oligarchs, that Government ministers are still granting exemptions to dodgy Russian oligarchs so that they can hide their ownership of businesses in this country, and I am mystified that Government ministers are still taking millions of pounds from dodgy Russian oligarchs.

“We have to clean up our act and it has to start with the Government.”