Ben Elliot and Sheikh Fawaz Al Khalifa, Bahrain’s ambassador to the UK. Elliot’s intervention with Middle East diplomats has caused unease among senior Conservatives © FT Montage/Reuters/Shutterstock

Ben Elliot, the Conservative party co-chair, discussed with foreign ambassadors a plan to grant a Tory donor a sensitive role in the UK ruling party’s Middle East relations without disclosing that the donor was also his paying client.

The Financial Times has established that Elliot communicated earlier this year with the Saudi Arabian and Bahraini envoys to London about Mohamed Amersi’s ambitions to displace the party’s existing Middle East liaison group with his own venture.

The Conservatives have declared Amersi and his partner’s £750,000 of donations but his membership of Quintessentially, the “concierge” service for the wealthy that Elliot co-founded and co-owns, was revealed only when the FT reported it in July.

It transpired last week that Elliot had failed to disclose his commercial relationship with Amersi when he intervened in an internal party dispute. But the revelation that he also failed to disclose the relationship in dealings with ambassadors from key UK partners has increased concerns among some senior Conservatives. 

© Facundo Arrizabalga/EPA

Elliot’s intervention with diplomats in a crucial region for the UK’s energy, trade and security interests raises further questions about whether he blurs the line between his commercial and political activities. The well-connected Old Etonian has served as the Tories’ co-chair since 2019 when Boris Johnson, the prime minister, appointed him to energise the party’s fundraising.

The Conservative party did not dispute that Elliot communicated with the diplomats or that he did not disclose his commercial relationship with Amersi.

In a letter seen by the FT sent to Elliot in January, Sheikh Fawaz Al Khalifa, Bahrain’s ambassador to the UK, wrote that he and some fellow Arab diplomats were concerned by Amersi’s plans for a new group called Conservative Friends of the Middle East and North Africa (Comena). The Tories’ existing liaison group, the Conservative-Middle East Council (CMEC), had for 40 years “occupied a special place in politics between the Middle East and United Kingdom”, Sheikh Fawaz wrote.

Founded under Margaret Thatcher as a counterweight to the influential Conservative Friends of Israel, CMEC’s recent delegations of Tory MPs have met regional power-brokers including Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman and Egypt’s ruler, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

Amersi told the FT last month he would expect to enjoy similar access as chair of Comena, which is awaiting a party decision on whether to grant it formal affiliation. Arab diplomats found it “disturbing to see varied and conflicting accounts of the Conservative party’s backing of Comena”, Sheikh Fawaz wrote to Elliot.

Sheikh Fawaz also mentioned a legal letter that had been sent to Charlotte Leslie, the former Tory MP who runs CMEC. Leslie has received several letters from Amersi’s lawyers, first at Mishcon de Reya then at Carter Ruck, demanding that she retract what they say are defamatory memos she wrote last year raising concerns about Amersi’s plans and his past, including his dealings in Russia. Leslie says she has done nothing wrong. She has accused Elliot of mixing his business and political interests in his handling of the dispute by failing to tell her of his commercial relationship with Amersi.

Sheikh Fawaz signed off his letter to Elliot: “I hope these concerns will be addressed for the sake of diplomatic confidence in the party and its affiliated groups, which are stronger and more important than ever.”

In his reply in January Elliot stressed the importance of the party’s relationship with the Middle East, mentioning his own love of Bahrain and how he visits each year for the Grand Prix as a guest of the crown prince.

Prince Khalid bin Bandar al Saud, Saudi ambassador to the UK, Ben Elliot discussed Mohamed Amersi’s plans for Comena with the diplomat in London © Adrian Dennis/PA

He apologised for the confusion caused by the creation of Comena but added only that he was in touch with both Amersi’s group and CMEC and would write again to clarify the situation. Elliot did not disclose to Sheikh Fawaz that Amersi was a Quintessentially client. He has not provided the promised clarification.

Elliot has also discussed Amersi’s plans for Comena with the Saudi ambassador in London, Prince Khalid bin Bandar al Saud, according to two people with knowledge of the conversation. Neither of them said Elliot disclosed that Amersi was a Quintessentially client. The conversation took place this year.

Amersi said Elliot’s intervention had not helped him secure his own meeting with the Saudi ambassador: “I am not aware of any meeting between Prince Khalid and Ben Elliot. I met Prince Khalid at social and other events earlier this year when Covid protocols permitted as we have mutual connections.”

In April another senior Tory, Lord Johnny Astor, supported Amersi’s plans in a letter to Khaled Al Duwaisan, the Kuwaiti ambassador to the UK and dean of the Council of Arab Ambassadors. There is no mention in this letter of Elliot’s commercial connection to Amersi.

A former Conservative cabinet minister said Elliot’s action “amounts to a freelance foreign policy which cuts across the official workings of government”. “It opens up scope for all sorts of encounters and practices which if done by a minister would be contrary to the ministerial code. It stinks,” the former minister added.

Khaled Al Duwaisan, Kuwait’s ambassador in London. He was sent a letter by another senior Tory, Lord Johnny Astor, supporting Mohamed Amersi © Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Darren Ellis, Quintessentially’s chief executive, said Elliot “is not involved in the day to day running of the business”. “Clearly therefore, a commercial relationship with Quintessentially is not a commercial relationship with Mr Elliot directly,” he added.

A Conservative spokesperson said it would be “ludicrous” to suggest that “a discussion about the niche issue of a Conservative Friends Of group” would amount to an intervention in UK foreign relations by Elliot. They added: “Mr Amersi’s membership of Quintessentially is utterly irrelevant to any decision the party would take on affiliating a Friends Of group.”

Asked whether the Tory chair’s intervention with diplomats represented a conflict of interest, Amersi said: “This is for Ben Elliot to address — I cannot comment.”

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