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Will Rishi Sunak’s financial feud pay off?

The latest scandals and gossip from Westminster and Fleet Street

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak departs 10 Downing Street, London, to attend Prime Minister's Questions. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/PA Images

With the Labour Party demanding to know if the Tories were aware of the three-year HMRC investigation into Anthony Bamford’s tax affairs as they trousered £10m from him and his family in donations, Rishi Sunak doubtless feels relieved to have been involved in a bitter feud with the portly JCB heir.

Figures just released from the Electoral Commission confirm that since Sunak became prime minister, Bamford – a close ally of Boris Johnson – hasn’t put so much as a penny the way of the national party. “Anthony was incandescent when Rishi knifed up his mate Boris,” whispers my man in Downing Street. “He went on to moan publicly about just about everything Rishi did – saying what a mess the country had got into, and, unstartlingly, that he regarded the current levels of taxation as too high.”

Sunak, for his part, is said to regard the billionaire – who inherited the JCB digger business from his father – as “pompous and self-important.” The prime minister took great delight in extolling the virtues of battery technology over hydrogen for cleaner energy cars as he would have been only too well aware that the Bamfords had invested £100m in making hydrogen internal combustion engines.

Bamford, who footed the bill for Johnson’s wedding party at his Cotswolds estate during the final days of his premiership and subsequently subsidised the newlyweds’ accommodation arrangements, has overseen millions of his family and his businesses’ money going the way of the Tory party under David Cameron, Theresa May, Liz Truss and of course his pet prime minister Johnson.

This year, the Bamfords have chosen to make a single donation of £7,500 specifically for the former chancellor Nadhim Zahawi’s constituency of Stratford-on-Avon. In 2022, the family gifted Liz Truss £14,141 during her leadership campaign. The biggest donation from the Bamfords in recent years amounted to £973,000 and was given to the party in March 2022 when Johnson was still in office.

Amusingly, the Bamfords have just put $50,000 the way of the Labour Party. Not the British Labour Party, but the one in Barbados. Their donation, reported in new figures for JCB Service, was made in 2022. Lord and Lady Bamford own Heron Bay, a £20m Palladian-style mansion on the Caribbean island – which became a republic in 2021. The house most recently played host to Rupert Murdoch and his short-lived fiancée Ann-Lesley Smith.

Liz Truss, the forgotten-but-not-gone former prime minister, happily posed beside the Texas senator Ted Cruz the other day, saying that it was “vital that Conservatives win the battle of ideas.”

She would not, alas, appear to be terribly interested in winning them with Lord Gavin Barwell – Theresa May’s former chief of staff – whom she has just blocked on Twitter/X. “Think she is the first person ever to do so,” Barwell noted. “So much for being an advocate of free speech…”

The principled stand that the Times has long taken on online abuse – at one point calling on the broadcasting regulator Ofcom to become involved – seems not to be a cause shared by one of the newspaper’s own journalists, Giles Coren, the son of the late humorist Alan Coren.

His response last week to the Daily Mail diarist Richard Eden’s highlighting of a row Coren had become involved in over his alleged use of a parking bay that had been set aside for a disabled resident in his north London neighbourhood resulted in him telling Eden online that he had consulted lawyers and was “fucking coming for you, you sack of fucking shit” and there was more in the same vein. It has since been reported that the police are investigating after Coren had allegedly confronted the neighbour who brought the matter to public attention on the Nextdoor website. Coren disputed that it was a disabled parking bay and said it was his wife – and not him – who had parked the car.

Coren sadly has form when it comes to online abuse. In 2021, he disgusted friends of the journalist Dawn Foster with his response to her death at the age of just 34 by writing on Twitter “HA HA HA HA HA HA,” and earlier, in 2010, he apparently got so annoyed with other neighbours after they gave their 12-year-old son a drum kit that he suggested on the same social media platform that the boy should be sexually assaulted and killed, though he later claimed he had made the whole thing all up.

Putting a damper on things immediately after the Tory conference, Jeremy Hunt announced last week he’d have to make “difficult decisions” in next month’s autumn statement as state borrowing rose £30bn more than forecast.

Hunt has in fact been droning on about “difficult decisions” ever since he was roped in as chancellor in the final days of Liz Truss’s premiership and his decision to repeat the phrase once again went down like a bag of cold sick with his next door neighbour Rishi Sunak. “Rishi sees every word and action now in the context of the forthcoming general election and he told Jeremy in no uncertain terms that he needs to lighten up,” a senior backbencher close to both men informs me.

Intriguingly, he adds that what Hunt was actually doing was trying to “outflank” Sunak on inheritance tax, which the PM wants to see slashed in the autumn statement. IHT has become an obsession of the Tory right and the subject of an aggressive Daily Telegraph campaign because they see it as the only way to shore up their vote share in southern England where it’s become increasingly burdensome as property prices have risen.

“We know it won’t play well in the red wall seats but there’s a grudging acceptance we’ve lost those anyway and this is about holding on to at least our core vote,” my source adds. “Jeremy isn’t keen on the idea as he wants to try to get the books into some sort of order first, but time isn’t on our side. Sunak wants it done in the autumn statement not just to appease the hard right, but also to put Keir Starmer in the awkward position of having to say he’ll either stick with an IHT reduction or say he’ll push it back up to where it was before, which will basically lose him southern England.”

After I noted last week how Carrie Johnson had declared on Instagram how “proud” she was to work for Damian Aspinall – despite the fact the Charity Commission’s investigation into alleged financial impropriety continues – the conservationist appears to be striving to draw a line under the unhappy episode.

Some of the complaints against Aspinall focused on the £402,000 in payments for “design services” to his now estranged wife Victoria that she had provided to his charities Howletts and the Aspinall Foundation. Now, in the small print to the updated financial statements for Howletts, I see the contract with Aspinall’s wife is reported to have ended in July last year and it states “no further contracts have been entered into since July 2022.”

“All the signs are the Charity Commission has come to some kind of accommodation with Aspinall,” says my informant. “The irony is that without Carrie as his highly paid director of communications, nobody would have been very interested in this and Damian would have been spared a great many embarrassing headlines when the investigation began.”

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