Lib Dems will not contest seats of Independents who have left other parties – so what about Claire Wright?

Sir Vince Cable has said that Lib Dems will NOT contest seats of the (so far 11) MPs who have broken from their parties to become independent in the last few days

Owl assumes that Sir Vince includes Claire Wright – the most popular independent in the country – in this sensible decision, especially as polling shows she could unseat Hugo Swire this time round.

Looking forward to Sir Vince’s confirmation.

Swire’s business pal hits the headlines yet again

As Owl’s readers know, our MP has a (currently) dormant business (Eaglesham Investments Ltd) with controversial peer Lord Greg Barker, who is mixed up with Russian oligarch Oleg Derepaska – and with him his Trump campaign pal Paul Manafort:

Now Lord Barker has hit the headlines again (page 10 of the Sunday Telegraph to be precise). He is to be questioned (again) by MPs over his dealings on behalf of Deripaska in the US and UK. Deripaska is said to be a very close ally of Vladimir Putin.

A prominent Vladimir Putin critic, Bill Browder, said last week:

“It’s remarkable … a member of the House of Lords is allowed to be paid by a Russian to lobby against sanctions for that Russian”.

Source: Sunday Telegraph

The Telegraph article continues with (yet another) attempted justification of his highly-criticised conduct by Barker.

Oh, Hugo – why can’t you get some NICE friends and business colleagues?

You have already swanned around the arms-buying capitals of the world (Saudi Arabia, Colombia to name but two);

You get paid a consultancy fee to advise on Latin American matters: and

You get a salary from the Conservative Middle East Council (see Register of Interests),

which is hard enough for your constituents to swallow, without this!

Research shows Swire could lose his seat to Claire Wright!

“The Conservatives would win a working majority if a general election was held now, according to YouGov modelling.

Theresa May’s party was forecast to win 321 seats – up from 317 at the last election – while Labour would lose 12 seats, the research for The Times suggested.

The SNP and the Liberal Democrats were each predicted to gain four seats, while Ukip would again win nothing.

But the market research company, which correctly forecast the 2017 result, predicted the Tories would see a fall in their estimated vote share, from 43.4% in 2017 to 39.4%, if an election was called this month.

Jeremy Corbyn’s party would also see a drop, from 41% to 34.2%, while the Liberal Democrats and Ukip were forecast to see a rise in vote share.

YouGov polled 40,119 people between February 2 and 7.

The pollsters found Labour was most likely to lose Sheffield Hallam – Nick Clegg’s old seat which was won by Jared O’Mara in the last election – as well as disgraced ex-Labour MP Fiona Onasanya’s Peterborough seat.

The Conservatives would lose Zac Goldsmith’s Richmond Park seat and Sir Hugo Swire’s East Devon, according to the research.”

Swire loses his job as auctioneer at fancy Tory ball

Swire’s poor taste quips were missing at this year’s Tory Black and White Ball

but conspicuous consumption ruled, as always.

“An unnamed donor paid £75,000 for a private night at the Proms with Theresa May at the Tories’ lavish Black and White Ball fundraiser.

Super-rich Tory donors splashed tens of thousands of pounds on cosy dinners with ministers, hunting trips and luxury holidays at the bash, as they dined on Michelin star food and drank fine wine.

Guests paid up to £15,000 a table to rub shoulders with Cabinet Ministers and take part in an exclusive auction.

Private dinners and events with nine cabinet ministers and the Prime Minister herself were sold to the highest bidder.

Labour Party Chair Ian Lavery said it was “stomach-churning”

Tory Chairman Brandon Lewis told guests: “Whatever you bid at the auction it is less than you’ll pay in tax under Corbyn.”

Revellers dug deep to fill Mrs May’s election war chest, with a set of Conservative Party campaign posters signed by the Prime Minister also selling for a staggering £175,000 – the cost of a three-bedroom terraced house in Sheffield.

And Philip May, the Prime Minister’s husband, pledged a donation of £4,200 to pay for ground campaigning in the month of May.

The auction was presented by Wynne Evans, star of the Go Compare adverts.

Lots included included Lunch at Ivy, one of London’s most exclusive restaurants, with Tory austerity architect George Osborne with a minimum bid of £6,000.

Restaurant tycoon Richard Caring, who owns the Ivy, attended the party and is understood to have donated the prize.

Also up for grabs were a Japanese dinner with Jeremy Hunt for at least £3,000 and Dinner with Home Secretary Sajid Javid for at least £2,500.

A ‘private cinema experience’ with Work and Pensions Secretary’ Amber Rudd sold for at least £2,000.

The lucky winner taking 19 friends to watch Ms Rudd’s favourite film, Samuel L Jackson spy thriller The Long Kiss Goodnight.

International Development Minister Penny Mordaunt, who was a magician’s assistant before becoming an MP, offered a private magic lesson for up to six people.

And Environment Secretary Michael Gove and wife Sarah Vine, offered a cosy, home-cooked meal, prepared personally at the kitchen table of their London family home.

And a streak of humour was added to the auction by offering a British cheese tasting session with Treasury Secretary Liz Truss.

Ms Truss shot to fame after a 2016 conference speech in which she overdramatically said it was a “disgrace” Britain imports two thirds of our cheese.

One lucky bidder won the chance to have their portrait painted by renowned artist Peregrine Heathcote for upwards of £20,000.

Labour Party Chair Ian Lavery said: “This sort of cash for access undermines our democracy and goes to the very root of why people have lost faith in politicians.

“People will be shocked to learn that there’s a price tag on keeping company with the Prime Minister.

“While millions of people are struggling with squeezed wages and Universal Credit , the Tories auctioning off a seat next to the Prime Minister for £75,000 is stomach-churning.”

More about Swire’s business pal Lord Barker (3)

“Foreign agents running a lobbying and influence operation to ease U.S. sanctions on companies tied to Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska were paid $543,958 over the past six months, according to newly released Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA) disclosures made available through the Center for Responsive Politics’ Foreign Lobby Watch tool.

In May 2018, Lord Gregory Barker of Battle, a member of the British House of Lords and chairman of En+ Group — a Russian energy company formerly controlled by Deripaska — inked a six-figure-per-month contract with Mercury Public Affairs to lobby for the removal of U.S. sanctions imposed for Deripaska’s role in Russian interference in the 2016 election. Barker has paid the firm more than $650,000 since May.

At the crux of the operation is former Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), who left the Senate in 2017 and quickly entered the revolving door. Despite a two-year “cooling off” period that restricts Senators from immediately lobbying their colleagues under the Lobbying Disclosure Act, Vitter is still able to lobby other key figures in the Trump administration.

Earlier in 2018, President Donald Trump nominated Vitter’s wife, Wendy Vitter, to a federal judgeship with the U.S. District Court in New Orleans.

Vitter received 12 reported disbursements from Barker in June and July 2018, eight of which were for client meetings. In April, Vitter had several meetings with State Department and Treasury Department officials briefing them on Barker’s situation.

Among his activities, Vitter sent form letters to ambassadors from Australia, Germany, Jamaica and Sweden, urging them to press federal offices on behalf of the sanctioned company.

Vitter wasn’t the only big name Mercury enlisted to beef up their lobbying efforts for the sanctioned companies. Mercury also brought on former Trump campaign aide Bryan Lanza, assembling a contingent of the firm’s top lobbyists and foreign influence operatives.

Days before Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announced his agency was considering lifting sanctions, Mercury filed FARA disclosures with the Justice Department announcing a new plan for sanctions relief from the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) department.

Titled the Barker Plan, the document stated Deripaska had resigned as director of En+, that he agreed not to seek reelection as director of RUSAL and that the CEO and seven directors of RUSAL along with the president and director of En+, all of whom were appointed by or affiliated with Deripaska, had resigned.

Mercury advocated for the removal of the companies from the sanctions list by warning that “a failure by OFAC to provide a path forward would have severe negative repercussions for both the administration and the global economy.”

The firm also argued that if the Barker Plan was not fully put into effect, En+ could seek “a potential acquisition by Chinese interests or the potential nationalization of the company by Russia.”

Mnuchin also mentioned the threat of Russian nationalization when justifying the department’s December 2018 decision to lift sanctions on the companies, and noted they had been restructured to reduce Deripaska’s stake in the companies to below 50 percent.

In a letter to Congress, Treasury OFAC Director Andrea Gacki defended the decision to remove sanctions writing that “this action – a removal based on a change in factual circumstances that is in line with longstanding U.S. sanctions precedent and practice designed to change behavior – is not intended to significantly alter U.S. foreign policy.”

Senate Democrats and 11 of their Republican colleagues weren’t sold, voting Wednesday to block the Treasury’s decision but falling just short of the required 60 vote threshold. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) voted against the Senate’s resolution. In September 2018, Vitter’s Louisiana Reform PAC gave $3,750 to McConnell’s Bluegrass Committee PAC. The House voted overwhelmingly on Thursday to formally disapprove of the rollback of sanctions.

OFAC has reportedly vetted trustees to oversee Deripaska’s shares that he will relinquish to Russia’s state-owned VTB Bank as well as those held by his family. …”

A little more on Swire’s business partner, Lord Barker (2)

“A Conservative peer who chairs a firm being sanctioned in the US for its Russian links has declined to give public evidence about it to a parliamentary committee, leaked documents disclose.

Lord Barker of Battle, the chair of the aluminium giant EN+ which is majority-owned by Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, did not wish to appear in open session before MPs because he hopes to persuade Washington to lift the sanctions, letters show. [He was successful – Trump, against the advice of Congress and Senate – allowed Deripaska to operate again in the USA]

Sanctions were imposed on Deripaska and EN+ in April because of the oligarch’s close relationship with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. The letters from Barker are due to be discussed by the foreign affairs select committee, which is looking into the flow of Russian money into the UK, on Wednesday.

The disclosure will raise concerns that the peer is being allowed to avoid parliamentary scrutiny. A Whitehall source said it was “highly unusual” for a parliamentarian not to give public evidence to a committee.

The letters also detail Barker’s attempts to persuade the US authorities to lift sanctions against EN+.

In April, the US treasury imposed sanctions on the company – whose assets include a stake in Rusal, the world’s second-largest aluminium producer – over what it called the Kremlin’s “malign activities”. Overall, it acted against seven oligarchs, 12 companies they own or control, as well as 17 senior Russian government officials amid allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and other issues. Deripaska resigned from EN+’s board in May but remains its biggest shareholder.

MPs are examining the issue of Russian money flowing into the UK following the nerve agent attack in Salisbury in March, which has been blamed upon the Kremlin, a charge it denies.

In a letter sent this week to the committee’s Tory chairman, Tom Tugendhat, Barker wrote that in light of sanctions against Deripaska, he is leading “a major effort” to take control of the company and would only give private evidence until negotiations with the US authorities have concluded.

“OFAC, the sanctions unit in the US treasury, has made it crystal clear that if certain changes are made to Deripaska’s controlling interest in the company, they are prepared to consider lifting the sanctions on the EN+ and Rusal group,” Barker wrote.

He said he would address MPs but only if the meeting was conducted in private. “Until this process is concluded, these measures remain financially and commercially sensitive. Nonetheless, given your interest in this area, I have offered your committee a confidential briefing in respect of this plan and my ongoing high-level discussions with the US treasury.

“You have declined that offer but I will be happy to return instead, as I have already informed you, once my discussions have concluded for an open public session,” he wrote.

In the letter, Barker also discloses that he offered to brief the security minister, Ben Wallace, about the US sanctions regime imposed on the firm and Deripaska. [Wallace refused].

However, he has denied allegations in the Times that he attempted to lobby Wallace.

Barker wrote: “I was very surprised to read this week in the Times, a leaked and partial extract of your correspondence with the minister that suggested that I had written to Mr Wallace ‘to request assistance for Russian associates’.

“As you know and as the attached letter makes absolutely clear, this is factually incorrect.

“I have written to Mr Wallace to kindly ask him to clarify the record and would be most grateful if you could also correct any false impression,” he wrote.

As supporting evidence to the committee, Barker included a letter he sent to Wallace in June in which he offered to meet the minister to explain how the firm planned to reduce Deripaska’s holding.

Barker, a former energy minister who has also been employed by Roman Abramovich, addressed the letter to “Dear Ben” and wrote: “I am now actively pursuing a number of radical changes in response to the imposition of US sanctions, details of which I would like to share with you.

“Together, these measures will result in the removal of Oleg Deripaska from the company and I am working closely with both the US administration, UK regulators and our minority shareholders to achieve this goal.

“Although I have no ask of you or any parliamentary colleague, I would be most grateful for an opportunity to come and update you on my progress and answer any questions you may have,” Barker wrote.

A source close to Barker said: “He wants to give a full account of himself but he cannot do that while negotiations are ongoing with Washington. Greg would be very happy to appear before the committee once negotiations have been concluded.”