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UK’s Conservatives accused of selling seats in parliament’s House of Lords

Sunday Times report says Israeli-born Sir Ehud Sheleg was potentially next in line to receive peerage, having donated £3.8 million to ruling party

A general view of the House of Lords chamber in session at the Houses of Parliament in London, September 5, 2016. (AFP/POOL/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
A general view of the House of Lords chamber in session at the Houses of Parliament in London, September 5, 2016. (AFP/POOL/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government is facing fresh allegations of favoritism and corruption amid a backlash from lawmakers and the public over efforts to rewrite lobbying rules and shield a member of the governing Conservative party from censure.

An investigation by The Sunday Times and Open Democracy revealed Sunday that a series of donors who gave at least £3 million to the Conservatives and served as the party’s treasurers have been put forward for seats in the House of Lords.

According to the report, 16 of the party’s main treasurers over the last two decades have been offered a seat in the UK parliament’s upper house.

Those included Lord Peter Cruddas, who took his seat after Johnson rejected the advice of the House of Lords Appointments Commission to not grant him a peerage.

The report said that his substantial donations to the Conservatives included a £50,000 payment to Johnson’s 2019 party leadership campaign.

The report said that only Israeli-born art gallery owner Sir Ehud Sheleg, who has donated £3.8 million to the party and was its most recent treasurer, has yet to be offered a peerage, having only departed from the job two months ago.

Responding to the report, Sheleg’s lawyers said he had donated to the Conservatives “for ideological support reasons and not because he wanted a peerage.” They said he had “never been offered a peerage by the party and did not expect one in the future.”

According to a February 2019 investigation published on the website Finance Uncovered, which The Times of Israel also worked on, Ran Sheleg, the brother and business partner of Ehud Sheleg, was involved in a binary options company called BinaryAffiliates.com, an affiliate marketer that promoted a number of allegedly fraudulent binary options platforms.

The Sunday Times report said that in total, since the Conservatives returned to power in 2010, successive prime ministers have made 22 of their party’s main financial backers into barons, including those who were treasurers.

The bombshell report comes after the UK government tore up the rulebook on how parliament polices ethical lapses by its members last week, following an excoriating cross-party standards committee report on illegal lobbying by Conservative MP Owen Paterson.

The former environment secretary was found to have repeatedly lobbied ministers and officials for two companies paying him more than £100,000 ($140,000, 120,000 euros) a year.

Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards Kathryn Stone said last month that Paterson lobbied the government in 2016 and 2017 on behalf of two companies that were paying him — the clinical diagnostics company Randox and the meat-processing firm Lynn’s Country Foods.

The Commons Standards Committee said Paterson’s actions were an “egregious case of paid advocacy,” and recommended he be suspended for 30 sitting days, which could trigger a by-election for his seat.

But Johnson ordered his MPs to vote for an overhaul of parliament’s internal disciplinary process instead, effectively letting the former minister off the hook.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson making a statement on his first day back at work in Downing Street, London, after recovering from a bout with the coronavirus that put him in intensive care, April 27, 2020. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein, FILE)

Paterson claims he was given no right of appeal by the committee, and that its investigation was a factor in the suicide of his wife last year.

Opposition parties vowed to boycott the new process. Their members shouted “shame,” and one Labour MP waved a wad of banknotes at the government benches.

Following public anger over the move, the government backtracked Thursday and said the proposed disciplinary reforms would not apply to the Paterson case, and a new debate was scheduled for Monday this week.

It reinstated one Conservative rebel to her job as a ministerial aide, and disowned remarks by Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng calling for the resignation of the independent standards commissioner, Stone.

But as it did so, Paterson quit in disgust, vowing to remain in public service but outside the “cruel world of politics.”

“Clearly we fully recognize the strength of feeling from members on this,” Johnson’s spokesman said, as the head of the committee on standards in public life called the vote “a very serious and damaging moment for parliament” and one that risked harming Britain’s international reputation.

British lawmaker Owen Paterson is seen outside the European Commission’s headquarters in Brussels, October 22, 2018. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

“This has been an unbelievable 24 hours even by this government’s chaotic standards,” Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labour Party, said after Paterson’s resignation. “Only yesterday Boris Johnson was forcing his MPs to rip up the rules on standards in public life in a truly damning indictment of this prime minister and the corrupt government he leads.”

Starmer argued that Johnson “must now apologize to the entire country for this grubby attempt to cover up for the misdemeanor of his friend.”

The selling of seats in the House of Lords and the lobbying episode are the latest to fuel allegations that Johnson and his government don’t follow rules that apply to everyone else. Home Secretary Priti Patel was allowed to keep her job after she was found to have bullied members of staff. Johnson himself has been criticized for allowing a Conservative Party donor to fund renovations of the prime minister’s residence.

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