Anyone studying the current travails of the Conservative Party could be forgiven for referencing Shakespeare, for thinking there really is something rotten in the kingdom.
In short order, we’ve had: an allegation of Islamophobia; “Partygate” including the holding of an indoor birthday gathering for the Prime Minister when such occasions were banned; the awarding of lucrative PPE contracts to favoured friends; the resignation of a government minister over the handling of fraudulent Covid loans; and accusations of blackmail against MPs who do not toe the line.
According to the idiom, the fish rots from the head. Boris Johnson is the Conservative leader; the chairman is Ben Elliot.
The nephew of Prince Charles, Elliot, 46, is co-founder and director of Quintessentially, the global “lifestyle management” firm that offers a range of services to its rich clients. Whatever you want, it will provide it – within reason and the boundaries of the law, of course.
Elliot is also no stranger to claims of playing fast and loose. His concierge company has reached a settlement with a client who accused it of “false advertising” and “fraud”.
The client, Californian businessman Christopher Grey, paid £5,500 ($7,425) to become a Quintessentially member. Grey turned to Elliot’s organisation for assistance in acquiring a European “golden visa” that grants residency or citizenship to wealthy investors.
On its advice, his company bought a one-bedroom property in Lisbon for £510,000 and then transferred it to himself, which it said would qualify him automatically for the visa.
It was wrong – the property could not be transferred to him for visa purposes, nor could it be rented out. He sued. Quintessentially refuted his claim and said it settled for reasons of expediency.
Last year, Quintessentially’s Manhattan landlords accused its New York operation of “continuous failure and refusal to pay rent” and breaking the terms of its lease. Quintessentially disputes the claim and maintains the rent is up to date.
In a separate case, the New York State Workers’ Compensation Board served Quintessentially with a final notice of a penalty for its alleged failure to provide medical insurance and compensation for lost income for those injured at work or with long-term disabilities. Here, Quintessentially denies receiving the notice and says it could not therefore respond to the charge, but it was untrue to say it had not provided insurance cover.
In another, American Express was pursuing Quintessentially for unpaid credit card bills, for purchases including wine and taxi rides booked through Uber. Amex had to go to court in New York over the $45,000 debt and won. Quintessentially’s explanation was that the credit card bills were going to an unoccupied address.
Then there was the late-filed financial report disclosing Elliot’s company had made accounting errors of more than £7m and paid £1.4m in dividends it should not have made to shareholders.
Signs of change in Britain
It says something about the Tories that their chairman should be someone who assists the wealthy in getting visas.
Equally, though, it could be seen as a sign of how Britain has changed. In the past, such a senior establishment figure, one charged with fund-raising for the party of capitalism, would be drawn from the higher echelons of the City or manufacturing industry. The UK economy today is one slanted towards services, in which the urbane, charming, impossibly well-connected Elliot, despite these travails, is something of a star – he is seeking offers for Quintessentially of up to £170m.
To be fair to Elliot, some of these cases beset many businesses in his field and ever since he became Tory chairman, Quintessentially’s affairs have become a matter of heightened media and political focus.
One episode that is harder to explain, though, is that concerning Mohamed Amersi. A Tory donor, Amersi, a British lawyer and deals fixer, was a client of Quintessentially. In return for a fee, Elliott arranged for the ambitious, multi-millionaire Amersi to meet his uncle, Prince Charles, and he duly became a trustee of the Prince’s Trust. A formal honour for Amersi appeared likely.
Amersi also set his sights on the Conservative Middle East Council, run by Charlotte Leslie, the former Tory MP. She alleges that Amersi tried to use his influence to take over the group, which promotes UK-Middle East relations.
When he was rebuffed, Amersi set up his own body, Comena, to rival Leslie’s. Last week, in the Commons, ex-Tory Cabinet minister David Davis said how Carl Hunter, a Tory adviser, “engaged in bullying and egregious behaviour” towards Leslie.
Details of taped calls between Hunter and Leslie were leaked. Hunter told her she needed to “consider being able to walk the dog at night” if she refused to apologise to Amersi, and “you’re looking into a world of pain on this … If you are not careful this will keep you up at night, monopolise your life, for as long as it lasts.”
Leslie has complained to the police about the calls. Amersi denies knowing about them or that Hunter was working on his behalf. Hunter maintained he did not recollect saying she should not go out at night and that he was trying to help Leslie.
This was the same David Davis MP who last week stood up in the Commons at Prime Minister’s Questions and said to Johnson: “In the name of God, go.”
Amersi calls what Elliot supplies “access capitalism”. The Conservative Party, it seems, is still the party of capitalism, of sorts.