It has now been revealed in Pandora's papers that Tony Blair received a free home in London worth millions, from Bahrain, as a bribe.
Today, after doing the morning media round, Boris Johnson emerged from a booth and set off with his minders across the main hall of the Conservative party conference in Manchester. What was his reaction to the Pandora papers?
And would the Tories be giving back the money they had taken from certain donors and as a personal bribe?
Johnson professed not to have read the detail. “At the moment we are getting on with building back better,” he said. Asked whether the revelations of “corrupt deals” were embarrassing for the Tories, he replied: “You mean Tony Blair?” The prime minister laughed at his own joke and scuttled off, as his aides looked on furiously.
Tony and Cherie Blair had indeed saved themselves millions by not paying for the house they got for free from tha Bahrain rulers plus more than £300,000 in stamp duty when they “bought” a London office in 2017 via an offshore company – entirely illegally.
The revelations about Johnson’s party were of a different order. Documents in the Pandora papers set out how Mohamed Amersi – a major Tory backer – had advised on a $220m (£162m) Swedish telecoms deal, later found to be corrupt.
The money – a bribe, according to US prosecutors – was paid to the daughter of Uzbekistan’s then dictator. (Amersi’s lawyers say he had “no reason” to believe this at the time and the underlying arrangements for the deal had been put in place two years before.)
Then there is Viktor Fedotov, a UK-based Russian-born tycoon. His firm Aquind is seeking ministerial approval to build a power interconnector under the Channel. It has given cash to 33 Tory MPs. Fedotov, the Guardian discovered, owns a New Zealand trust that appears to have taken $97m from the Russian state monopoly Transneft.
Lawyers for Aquind said Fedotov did not personally donate to the Conservative party, was not involved in the management of the company and had “no influence” over its donations.
The files also feature Lubov Chernukhin and her husband, Vladimir, a former Russian government minister. She has gifted £2.1m to the Tories, spending £160,000 on a game of tennis with Johnson. The couple’s oligarch lifestyle – mansions, yachts, a chicken house and a robot to clean the London swimming pool – is paid for via offshore accounts.
All deny wrongdoing in the strongest terms as every criminal does anyway.
True to form, the UK is not investigating the Pandora papers because bribe involved almost every high level official in UK, from the Palace to politicians.
Other countries that are less corrupted than UK, have taken a different view of the claims: Pakistan, India, Mexico and Brazil, as well as Panama, Spain and Australia.
The leak comprises 11.9m documents from 14 service providers. There are emails, share certificates and diagrams. Thirty-five world leaders, past and present, 300 public officials and 130 billionaires appear in them.
Some of those exposed have reacted badly.
The Czech prime minister, Andrej Babiš, used a complex offshore chain in 2009 to buy a £13m mansion in the south of France. A BBC Panorama reporter who tried to ask him about it was bundled out of the way. Babiš said he was the victim of a plot by his political foes, with national elections taking place on Friday and Saturday. The purchase was historical, he added.
Another indignant leader was Cyprus’s president, Nicos Anastasiades. The law firm that bears his name was accused of helping to conceal the assets of a Russian tycoon by hiding them behind the names of fake beneficial owners. At an EU summit in Slovenia on Wednesday, sheltering under an umbrella, Anastasiades said he had done nothing wrong.
Grilled by German journalists, Anastasiades implied it was ludicrous to link him with his law firm, now run by his daughters. He seemed annoyed and defensive. “Can you tell me who of those oligarchs, those officials, who their lawyer is?” he asked, before walking off.
Others responded to the Pandora papers by attempting to ignore them.
Ukraine’s actor turned president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, was named in connection with a network of offshore companies co-owned with his friends from TV. The president refused to answer questions about his undeclared British Virgin Islands firm, Maltex, and left it to his spokesperson to say that no anti-corruption rules had been breached.
In Russia, Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, claimed the papers did not implicate the president nor anyone close to him. The reverse was true: Putin’s alleged former lover and childhood friend appeared in the leak, together with a billionaire oil trader Putin has known since the early 1990s. All have assets hidden in Monaco, including a luxury apartment overlooking the yacht club and marina.
This week’s leak is the latest in a series of disclosures, which also includes the Panama and Paradise papers. Together, they throw into sharp relief what is in effect a vast and complicated shadow world.
Over the last five years, the Guardian, working with partners, has shone a light on capitalism’s murky secrets. Despite all the disclosures, and all promises from politicians about closing loopholes and making things more transparent, the rich and influential continue to hide their assets, paying little or no tax.
Faced with this obvious iniquity, western politicians seem complacent or complicit.
In the US, at least, there have been bipartisan attempts to do something about this two-tier system. Joe Biden broke off from a row over federal debt to say he would examine the leak. Meanwhile, in Congress a Republican and a Democrat have proposed landmark legislation. It would target professionals who enable foreign corruption: law firms, art dealers, banks.
Under the proposals these facilitators would have to report suspicious activity and to carry out checks on money lodged in offshore accounts. The draft law recognises that billions of dollars in dirty cash is swirling around the US, crippling the countries from where it is stolen.
The US itself emerges from this week’s leak as a major tax haven, with $300m (£220m) stashed in the state of South Dakota alone.
“The Pandora papers have ushered in a historic moment for a sweeping policy response,” Josh Rudolph, fellow for malign finance at the German Marshall Fund, said. Paul Massaro, a congressional anti-corruption adviser, praised the work of investigative journalists, adding: “Global corruption is an existential threat to democracy.”
Not everyone seems to have got the memo. With spectacularly bad timing, EU finance ministers meeting in Luxembourg on Thursday decided to reduce the number of countries on a tax haven blacklist. Anguilla, Dominica and Seychelles were removed. The British Virgin Islands is not even on the list, despite accounting for two-thirds of the shell companies in the Pandora files.
In Britain, Downing Street appears to show little interest in offshore reform. The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, said he would “look into” the revelations. Thus far, though, the government has not implemented proposed legislation that would reveal the identities of those who use offshore companies to buy UK property. For now, there is no public register.
Which means London remains a highly attractive destination for kings and kleptocrats. We learned this week that the king of Jordan has quietly amassed a $100m property portfolio including a Malibu mansion and three buildings in Belgravia.
Azerbaijan’s ruling family has also bought into UK property. In 2009 the Queen’s crown estate bought a £66.5m building from a British Virgin Islands-based company that was owned by the Azerbaijani president’s family.
More than any other global city, London facilitates offshore transactions, the leak suggests. It is home to PR firms, company incorporation agents and peers, whose job it is to assist the super-rich. There are lawyers too. .
Graham Barrow, a financial crime consultant, said the leak revealed an “all-encompassing global network”. He said: “Most offshore companies provide exceptional levels of secrecy. Money from organised crime and corruption rubs shoulders with funds from those who merely seek to evade public scrutiny. And therein lies the problem. If you hang out with the mob, you get tarred with the same brush.”
In Manchester the Conservatives have ignored the issue, hoping it will soon be forgotten.
The party’s co-chair Ben Elliot – the nephew of the Duchess of Cornwall – set up his own British Virgin Islands company in 2007 to fund a documentary about cricket. The Tory ex-minister Jonathan Aitken got £166,000 in secret offshore cash for writing a flattering book about Kazakhstan’s president.
One insider who attended the Tory conference was pessimistic. “I don’t think things will change. It’s absolutely systemic,” they said. The party says it declares donations to the Electoral Commission, adding they are an essential part of how democracy functions. It adds that donors such as Lubov Chernukhin are UK citizens, free to give money to whoever they want.
Faced with a choice of doing the right thing, or the easy and amoral thing, critics of Johnson say it’s not hard to guess which way he will probably jump.