Tories accepted donation from Hester after Abbott row

Frank Hester
[YouTube/PA Media]

The Conservative Party accepted a further donation from Frank Hester, after he had been accused of making racist comments about Labour's Diane Abbott.

The businessman donated £150,000 to the party through his healthcare software company, The Phoenix Partnership, on 8 March.

The donation was then formally accepted by the Tories on 14 March, according to the Electoral Commission.

New figures released by the commission also confirm he donated £5m in January, before he became embroiled in the row.

Mr Hester previously made £10m of donations to the Conservatives last year.

In March – after the latest £5m was donated but before it was known about – the tech boss was thrust to the centre of a political controversy after claims he made comments to staff saying that Ms Abbott “should be shot”.

The £150,000 donation was accepted the day after Rishi Sunak faced a volley of criticism at prime minister’s questions about Mr Hester. He condemned the alleged comments as “wrong” and “racist”, but made clear that the Conservatives would not return Mr Hester’s money.

Mr Hester apologised for making "rude" comments about Ms Abbott but said his remarks "had nothing to do with her gender nor colour of skin".

He declined to comment when approached by the BBC about the latest donations.

Ms Abbott accused Mr Sunak of "pure hypocrisy" for accepting donations from Mr Hester.

"If he really objected to Hester’s remarks Sunak would not still be taking his money," she told the BBC.

Labour Party chairwoman Anneliese Dodds said: "Rishi Sunak has proven he is a man with no integrity.

“He is too weak to return the money donated by a man who has made violent, misogynist, and racist remarks which belong nowhere near our politics."

Liberal Democrat deputy leader Daisy Cooper said: “How low can Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives go? If the Conservatives spend this money they will be proudly funded by a man who made the most appalling racist and sexist comments.

"Ultimately the buck stops with Rishi Sunak. Sunak must personally intervene and make sure not a penny of this money is spent."

A Conservative Party spokesman said: “Mr Hester has rightly apologised for comments made in the past.

"As Mr Hester has apologised and shown contrition and we consider the matter resolved."

Diane Abbott
Diane Abbott was the first black woman to be elected to Parliament in 1987 [Reuters]

A number of former employees of Mr Hester have told the BBC he regularly made remarks they regarded as racist and sexist.

Two of them said they recalled him making comments about Asian people.

One said he referred to some staff as "the Asian girls". Another said he mimicked accents in meetings.

Another ex-employee criticised the prime minister for accepting Mr Hester's apology, saying: "It's not a one off... There was absolutely a culture of Frank making seriously awful comments."

All the former employees spoke to the BBC in March on the basis of anonymity.

Mr Hester was by far the Conservatives’ biggest donor in the first quarter of 2024.

The next biggest was Sir Peter Wood, the founder of Direct Line, who gave the party £500,000.

Other notable donors include the businessmen Lord Hintze and Lord Ashcroft, who each donated £50,000.

In the same period Labour received £1.6m from Ecotricity, the company controlled by Dale Vince, taking his recent donations to the Labour Party to around £4m.

Mr Vince attracted controversy last year after it emerged he had also donated to Just Stop Oil. He stopped funding the campaign group in October, saying their protests were “counterproductive”.

Labour also accepted £700,000 from the hedge fund manager Martin Taylor.

Away from the business world, the party received £180,000 from Grayson Perry and £85,000 from Maggi Hambling, both artists.

How much did Frank Hester donate to the Conservatives?

by Daniel Wainwright, BBC Verify

Mr Hester’s company was the source of more than half of all donations declared by the Conservatives in the first few months of 2024.

Electoral Commission data shows the party received just under £9m from 189 sources, excluding public funds.

Just over £5m of that was from Mr Hester’s company, the Phoenix Partnership. Mr Hester and his company also donated more than £10m declared in 2023.

Total donations received by the Tories and declared the first quarter of 2024 were 26% down on the same period in 2023.

Labour, meanwhile, has seen donations rise 67% (almost £3m more) in January to March 2024 compared with the same three months of 2023, donations to the Lib Dems are up by 83% (over £1m more) and donations to the Greens have doubled (rising by £181,000).

Reform UK has declared £25,000 in donations but its former leader Richard Tice has previously loaned the party money, details of which are recorded separately from donations by the Electoral Commission.

Labour’s biggest donor, electicity company Ecotricity, provided 22% of all donations the party registered in the first quarter of 2024. Ecotricity was founded by Dale Vince, who has also given money to Just Stop Oil.

The largest sum donated to Labour by a union was £381,837 from Unite, but this was Labour’s fourth biggest source of donations in that three-month period.

A total of £10m of donations from Mr Hester last year had already been revealed in the Electoral Commission register.

There is a three-month lag before donations are made public by the commission.

Tortoise Media reported in March that the Tories had received a further £5m from the businessman but the Tories had previously refused to confirm whether this was the case.

Mr Hester allegedly said in 2019 that veteran MP Diane Abbott made him "want to hate all black women" and should "be shot".

At the time the comments were reported, Ms Abbott was suspended from sitting as a Labour MP for saying Irish, Jewish and Traveller people were not subject to racism "all their lives". She withdrew her remarks and apologised "for any anguish caused".

The row increased pressure on Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer to lift the suspension of Ms Abbott, who was the first black woman to be elected to Parliament.

However, the former shadow home secretary and veteran left-winger, who is a close ally of former leader Jeremy Corbyn, was only readmitted to the party last week.

There was still uncertainty over whether she would be allowed to run as Labour’s candidate in her former seat of Hackney North and Stoke Newington until Sir Keir said she would be free to stand for the party on Friday.