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Sensemaker: Westminster money trail

Sensemaker: Westminster money trail

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Nine months in the making, the Westminster Accounts lift the lid the money flowing into the heart of British politics.
  • In total this parliament, parties and individual MPs have received £183 million from private sources.
  • That money is not evenly spread: Theresa May is the single highest earning MP, banking £2.5 million since the last election.

Westminster money trail

More money flows into the UK parliament from outside sources than in MPs’ salaries. Millions are channelled through informal groupings that can influence policy in the interests of businesses and foreign governments – and could be infiltrated by spies. Some MPs are incorruptible; others are credulous at best. One has acquired the nickname “Airmiles”. 

So what? The engine room of British democracy has rules and systems to enforce transparency, but they’re not working as they should. They are being twisted out of shape by 

  • donors to political parties whose contributions are declared but whose quid pro quos are not;
  • outside jobs that MPs use to supplement their earnings, which may or may not influence their judgements, votes and arguments; and
  • All-Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs) with no formal role in parliamentary business but myriad opportunities to promote agendas that may or may not be in the national interest.

Exactly how much money is sluicing through Westminster, and where does it come from? That was the question we asked ourselves last spring. We didn’t expect it to take nearly a year to start getting to the answer, but that is why it matters – and why we’re inviting the public to help us explore the Westminster Accounts database compiled by Tortoise and Sky News to shine a powerful new searchlight on money in British politics. 

Since the start of the current Parliament – a little over three years – £183 million has been declared by MPs in the form of second jobs, donations, free trips and hospitality, all from private sources. That’s around £20 million more than MPs’ base salaries in the same period. 

The money comes in different forms, and the patterns tell us different stories. 

Side hustles. £15 million has been earned by parliamentarians on top of their MPs’ and ministerial salaries. This isn’t evenly spread – only 34 MPs have earned more than £100,000 outside parliament and two-thirds of all outside income is earned by only 20 MPs.

The lion’s share –  £13 million – has gone to Conservatives. The highest-earning MP is former prime minister Theresa May, who has made £2.5 million since the last election. Her successor, Boris Johnson, could eclipse her as early as this week – which may help explain why his plans to reform second jobs came to nothing.

Influencers. APPGs have exploded in number in recent years, and some have funnelled large sums into parliament. They are informal single-interest groups set up to further understanding of a particular topic, but with little oversight they’re open to influence from business and foreign entities. 

By the end of 2022 there were 738 APPGs, more than one per MP, up from 552 in 2016.  And while over a third have never taken any money from outside sources, collectively they have received £20 million in the current parliament.

Nearly 150 of these groups represent countries or regions, to which their members are often invited on expenses-paid trips. One MP has taken 29 since 2016 with a total value of over £80,000. Other APPGs serve as vehicles for lobbying by business interests ranging from medical device makers to agricultural chemical giants. 

Big spenders. Direct donations to parties have totalled £127.8 million this parliament. Individual MPs have received £17.2 million. The Westminster Accounts tool reveals for the first time in a supposedly transparent system who the biggest non-union donors to MPs are. Many are Conservatives, but not all, and both parties will have to contend with the awkwardness of donations from companies few people have ever heard of.

Trust deficit. Five years ago the then chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, Lord Bew, warned Prime Minister Theresa May more transparency on lobbying and MPs’ outside interests was needed “to prevent further erosion of public trust”. Five years on, that trust is crumbling. 

The first rule of journalism is to follow the money. It’s never easy, but we hope the Westminster Accounts will make it that bit easier.


May’s millions

The highest-earning MP in this parliament isn’t Boris Johnson – yet. It’s his predecessor.


​​In praise of Qatar

The Gulf state with all the gas and football stadiums has been generous with donations to MPs as well.


NICE job

How £300,000 was funnelled into a parliamentary group by medical device makers anxious to protect their interests in the UK.


The fight over rewilding

Biodiversity or “sustainable intensification” of agriculture? A group of MPs who are also members of a group part-funded by pesticide makers would prefer the latter.


Come fly, MP

Meet the parliamentarian who’s taken 13 expenses-paid overseas trips with his wife – who is also his assistant – as a member of 16 all-party parliamentary groups.

Thanks for reading. Please tell your friends to sign up, send us ideas and tell us what you think. Email sensemaker@tortoisemedia.com.

Catherine Neilan

Giles Whittell

The reporters on the Westminster Accounts, a major collaboration with Sky News, were Paul Caruana-Galizia, Phoebe Davis, Luke Gbedemah, Sebastian Hervas-Jones, Alice Horrell, Barney Macintyre, Katie Riley, Guy Taylor, Jeevan Vasagar and Joe White. 

Photographs Getty Images