UK Politics

Cameron rejects calls to pay back £160K tennis match donation

David Cameron and Boris Johnson playing tennis Image copyright PA
Image caption Both David Cameron and Boris Johnson are keen fans of the game

David Cameron has rejected calls to pay back a £160,000 donation to the Conservatives from the wife of a former member of President Putin's government.

Mr Cameron said he would not accept money from a "Putin crony" but Lubov Chernukhin "certainly wasn't that".

Mrs Chernukhin bid for a tennis match with the PM and London mayor Boris Johnson at a fundraising event.

The PM, who is pushing for tougher sanctions against Russia, has been accused of hypocrisy over the donation.

But speaking on a visit to the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, he said handing the money back was not "the right approach" because Mrs Chernukhin had "lived in Britain for many years" and was now a British citizen.

Mr Cameron has criticised France for going through with a deal to sell warships to the country despite Moscow's backing for separatists in Ukraine.

But France's Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius hit back on Monday, suggesting Britain should look at the number of Russian oligarchs in London before criticising his country.

Fundraising ball

Downing Street rejected the charge of hypocrisy, saying there had been no criticism of Mr Cameron from "around the EU table".

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionDavid Cameron and Boris Johnson say Lubov Chernukhin is not "one of Putin's cronies"

"The PM and other EU leaders are entirely focused on what should be done following the terrible loss of life rather than raising other issues," said a source.

A tennis match with the prime minister and Boris Johnson was the star lot at a Tory fundraising ball held in London earlier this month, which reportedly raised £500,000 for the party's general election war chest.

A Tory spokesman said the gift from Mrs Chernukhin, a longstanding Conservative donor, would not be paid back because it was within the rules and would be declared to the Electoral Commission.

Her husband Vladimir, who was a Russian finance minister, was sacked in 2004 and had fallen out with President Putin and did not have links with the Putin regime, added the spokesman, and the couple were now both British citizens.

The spokesman said he was confident all gifts from donors with Russian links were in order and complied with the rules.

'Full checks'

Asked by Sky News about whether he would take part in the game, Boris Johnson said: "I think we've got to do something that actually hits Putin and his government where it hurts and make a real difference to their attitude.

"I know about this tennis match, they volunteered me to play tennis with some geezer and it's very, very important that full checks are carried out to ensure this is not someone who is an intimate of Putin or a crony and we are doing that at the moment."

He later issued a statement, saying: "We need to exert maximum pressure on Putin to do the right thing in Ukraine by targeting him and his cronies.

"I'm assured by the government that Mr Chernukhin doesn't fall into that category.

"It's important that we don't lash out with measures that would simply attack all Russians everywhere."

Image copyright PA
Image caption Labour MP Chris Bryant is calling on the Conservatives to hand back the money

Labour MP Chris Bryant called on the Conservatives to pay the money back, telling The Guardian: "President Putin will just laugh at David Cameron if he is taking £160,000 from one of his old mates while trying to pretend he is being robust on Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea and almost certain criminal involvement in the bringing down of MH17.

"Since 2010 Cameron has repeatedly misread Russia. He has wanted just to do business with Russians and take Russian money but there's a black heart at the centre of the present regime. The Tories should give the money back. He can't possibly be seen to play this game of tennis."

A number of wealthy, UK-based Russians have donated money to the Conservative Party in recent years.

At the same fundraising dinner, Ukrainian-born energy magnate Alexander Temerko, a political opponent of Putin who successfully fought extradition proceedings to remain in Britain, is reported to have paid £90,000 for a bronze bust of Mr Cameron, which he donated to the Carlton Club.

Mr Temerko, a former senior executive at Russian oil giant Yukos, who is now a British citizen, has made donations of more than £280,000 to central Tory funds or MPs in the past two years, according to The Electoral Commission.

Labour MP John Healey has written to the PM demanding to know what background checks he has overseen on Russians who have donated to the Conservatives during his tenure as party leader, and whether Russian donors have been able to meet ministers to discuss politics.

It comes as an influential committee of MPs said UK licences to export arms worth millions of pounds to Russia remained in place despite fears Moscow is arming rebels in Ukraine.

More on this story