Having taken a former MP to court for alleged defamation, the wealthy Conservative donor Mohamed Amersi has now found himself under siege in the court of public opinion, after MPs used parliamentary privilege this week to accuse him of ill-gotten wealth and of attempting to silence his accuser, Charlotte Leslie, through his legal action.
However, responding to the concerns expressed by Leslie about potential corruption and the influencing of parliamentarians through foreign money flowing into friendship groups (see our previous post) Amersi says he agrees and had proposed reforms that were first taken up by the Conservative party but then were shelved.
MPs who have registered ‘fact-finding’ trips to the Gulf and others with ‘consultancy’ contracts in the region might find his criticism uncomfortable. Whilst engagement is important he contends “Its not that you need to be flown first class, given a villa or a suite and wined and dined, that is the wrong model.”
“All these parliamentarians. I know how the Middle East works, I have lived there and I have seen how the people on the ground make fools of Europeans and Brits and Americans. They think they can buy them off by wining and dining and looking after them and then they snigger and they laugh at all this. We are taken as fools OK? Completely sold.”
Mr Amersi has been criticised for seeking to organise and fund his own friendship group, which Ms Leslie was concerned would by-pass the long-standing Conservative Middle East Council (CMEC) that she is now the director of.
In a memo to gatekeepers for the project (and allegedly security personnel) she explosively implied that Amersi, an established major donor to the party, was subject to corruption and foreign puppet masters. He responded with legal action, at which point many of the allegations reached news organisations and were reported.
Amersi has given his own version of events. He has accused CMEC of focusing only on the Gulf states and says he was proposing a wider ‘better governed’ organisation with better oversight.
“CMEC has been seen to have been completely hijacked by the Gulf, if you go and talk to North African Ambassadors, Ambassadors from the Levant and Afghanistan, Turkey and Iran they would say ‘sorry we don’t even know what this organisation is’. When asked why this might be the case? Amersi responded “because they [the Gulf] have money, that’s the only reason”.
From the point of view of British constituents the resulting concern is whether groups of this nature could result in undue influence on foreign policy by these MPs, let alone a distraction from domestic duties? Amersi thinks yes:
“It’s a very big danger because, as Ms Leslie said, in the hands of somebody who’s irresponsible or unscrupulous it can be dangerous because people will personally profit from it, policies will be advanced on based who their foreign state relationships are and it will lead to a mess as we saw what happened when CMEC went to the Manama Dialogue.
What happens when they come back is they spin a story that ‘a lot of progress has been made’, ‘we are holding their hands’, ‘we need to give them time’, ‘look at how we used to be 150 years ago’, ‘by going there we are enabling and empowering’. Is it really the case?”
Mr Amersi’s swipe appears to have been referring to a controversial 2016 debate initiated by Ms Leslie, when she herself was an MP and member of CMEC, after visiting the Gulf.
She, and fellow Conservative MPs who had been on the sponsored trip, extensively praised government leaders from UAE, Saudi and Bahrain whilst disparaging protests about human rights expressed by Labour and SNP MPs, whom she described as ‘armchair critics’.
Her comments, including “It is easy to carp morally from the sidelines on issues such as human rights, which are a huge concern to us all, but that is not always the best way” and “There are practical benefits of understanding the region…. versus the luxury (and it is a luxury) of impotent moralising from a far-off position”, sparked the retort from Patrick Grady (SNP) that “while listening to some of the speeches, I was reminded of the television satirist Mrs Merton, who famously asked Debbie McGee, regarding her husband, “What first attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?”
Grady’s quip summarised much of the scepticism and concern about the so-called ‘foreign junketing’ by some MPs. The matter remains unresolved, Amersi says, not least because his own proposals to reform the management of friendship groups have foundered during the internal party row about who should run the Middle East beat.
Since taking over as the Director of CMEC Ms Leslie has disaffiliated the organisation from the Conservative party, making it into a private company instead. However, she has described as a “smear” the allegation that the friendship group is no longer formally linked to the Conservatives: “The accusation is we have changed in a major way, but we haven’t changed at all. The people we operate with are Conservative MPs, we don’t take Labour MPs [on trips] we haven’t changed function or purpose”.
Indeed, CMEC again took Conservative MPs to the Manama Dialogue last November (funded by the Bahrain Government). However, the disaffiliation in 2019 (CMEC as a private limited company now keeps its donors private) has created an undoubted rift amongst Conservatives – the two Conservative MPs on the board left within months and have not been replaced.
Amersi says he was at that point approached in his capacity as an ‘Arabist’ with extensive contacts in the Middle East, and as an existing Conservative benefactor, to organise a new affiliated group that he says would be more accountable and available to scrutiny than CMEC.
However, during the ensuing row the UK citizen and Cambridge educated lawyer, was identified in the media as a holder of off-shore accounts and also an actor in international telecoms deals in emerging markets that made him considerable profits but some of which have been held to question. In the case of Swedish Telia deal in Uzbekistan there were fines for corrupt practice. Amersi has pointed out that he was not found culpable by any of the official enquiries in that or any other case.
Cross party MPs have now used parliamentary privilege to make further unsubstantiated allegations against him (in a debate orchestrated by Leslie herself) about Russian contacts and Kremlin influence, all of which he extensively rebuts.
In response to the observation that ‘every donor has an agenda’ he claims his objective as a retired businessman and British Muslim was to set up a post-Brexit UK role for Britain within the Middle East. His proposal, he says, was to link with other benefactors to raise £500,000 over three years to run the group, after which he planned to hand it over to other managers. He claims “Alan Duncan [former Conservative MP] asked me “which do you want money or access” I didn’t need either”.
It is Amersi’s claim that he then spent several months negotiating a structure with the party (which he claims he originally had hoped could re-engage with CMEC) to bring appropriate governance to friendship organisations that had ‘gone wrong’ owing to a lack of governance and accountability.
The proposals would apply to this and and a score of other parliamentary friendship groups that the Conservative party leadership had at first signalled they would adopt. “I entered into a lengthy dialogue with the outreach team of the Conservative party and there was a concept developed that was going to really transform the way friendship groups are run.”
“My suggestion was accepted that we needed a member of the outreach group on the board, second our budgets have to be approved by the party so they see where the money is coming from, how much is coming in and how it is being spent… These are undertakings Comena put in writing. I come from a legal and business background, doing due diligence is at the heart of what I do. I spent a lot of time looking into what went wrong and how do we avoid falling into the same trap”.
Asked if these basic oversight principles were not currently being applied to the other friendship groups Amersi claimed “No not at all, absolutely not, none of them. They have some parliamentarians who are at the lead of these organisations but they are not regulated in the way that you would feel comfortable”.
Asked if friendship groups currently submit their business plans and accounts to scrutiny under the existing oversight by the Electoral Commission he responded “absolutely not. What’s the Electoral Commission going to do? They have rules to say that anyone who funds you more than ten/twenty thousand you have to declare. Big deal and then what? It’s not adequate. You have got your 20k/50k from some company, what’s the quid pro quo for that?”
Sarawak Report has reviewed documentation showing the Conservative party, according its former Outreach Communications Director, Michael Stott, initiated extensive reforms in early 2021 apparently designed to bring greater oversight and accountability to its affiliate groups, including placing a party executive on the board and requiring full accountability.
However, Amersi laments that following apparent resistance to these requirements from a number of those groups and then the clash with CMEC these basic safeguards have been shelved, leaving serious governance issues unresolved:
“You have agreements [over donations] that say this is what we want in return. I have not seen anybody talk about what the quid pro quo has been for CMEC before disaffiliation or after. Nothing. Money’s come in. Why has it come, what is expected? There is no oversight, nothing.”
“It means there was serious lack of governance, serious lack of supervision.”
It is Amersi himself who is now battling for his reputation as he counters accusations about how he acquired his fortune and who his contacts might be abroad. He claims that having been invited to resolve a problem by the Conservative party it is now he who is being victimised:
“A lot is being said about me being a “bully” [for taking legal action] But I feel I am being bullied by Leslie through her influence in Parliament, her reach in media circles, her attacks on my social media profile and her outreach to the diplomatic corps. I didn’t start this fight. I didn’t write scurrilous memos. I did not bring CMEC into disrepute if one is to believe what the Google searches on CMEC bring out”.
That is a matter destined to be resolved in court or settled. However, the concerns raised by this ongoing row and the escalating revelations about MP’s overseas contracts, second jobs, honours for donors and influence buying under the present government surely demand a full enquiry into how the super wealthy and foreign money are interfering in objective governance?