Conservative MPs accepted thousands of pounds in donations without knowing the source of the funds, Tortoise has learned.
Since 2019 a Blackburn-based telecoms group called IX Wireless has donated more than £138,000 to 24 Conservative MPs, mostly members of the Northern Research Group.
The company also sponsored the NRG’s conference last year, at which Rishi Sunak and Tom Tugendhat spoke ahead of the summer Tory leadership campaign.
IX Wireless is one of the top 15 biggest political donors apart from trade unions, but MPs say they didn’t know it was behind the money until weeks after receiving it, and some had never heard of it before.
Christian Wakeford, the Bury South MP who defected to Labour early last year, said he had been asked to put together a proposal to receive funding through the Northern Research Group, via the Conservative Party chair Jake Berry and treasurer John Stevenson. A month later the pitches were approved and the cash transferred – but the donor was not disclosed.
“The first I ever heard of IX Wireless is when I was told ‘this is something you need to put on the register of interests for compliance purposes’ – that was all I ever heard of them,” Wakeford said.
At that point, he says checks were carried out to make sure the initial £3,500 was legal – establishing it came from a UK-registered company – but “other than that, I’m not aware of anyone who looked any further”.
Wakeford said he and the other recipients were “newbies” who had been MPs for less than a year, most of it under Covid. “So any chance to raise funds was appreciated… In hindsight, should more questions have been raised? Probably.”
Neither Berry nor Stevenson responded to requests for comment.
Even if MPs had known that IX Wireless was behind the money, the ultimate ownership of the company is far from clear. Set up in 2017, it was originally owned by a Jersey-based business called Internexus International, run by, among others, Tahir Mohsan, once named one of Britain’s richest young entrepreneurs. Several of Mohsan’s companies abruptly fell into administration in the early noughties. He now lives in Dubai.
A string of other companies are linked to IX Wireless, including Cohiba Communications, for which the Tory peer James Wharton is a director, but Tahir Mohsan appears to remain the ultimate owner.
IX Wireless accounts show that in 2018, the firm made a loss of £655,000, and registered net assets of just £4,669. A year later it had net assets of £14.6 million and by 2020 it had total equity of £28.5 million.
A financial expert we approached to explain the figures said it appeared that the valuation of wayleaves – agreements that grant telecoms firms the rights to access land or property to install hardware – had rapidly increased. In his words, “an accountant waved a pen in 2020 and said those holes are worth £30 million”.
In addition IX Wireless, and its previous iteration 6G Internet, has received £676,660 of DCMS funding for gigabit vouchers, Tortoise has established through a Freedom of Information request.
Another Tory MP confirmed that the Northern Research Group had played a “coordinating function” in receiving the donations but said he “didn’t think it was appropriate” to accept one himself.
This MP seems to have judged the situation right. Chris Green, the MP for Bolton West, has been criticised for receiving a £5,000 donation after IX Wireless erected 6G masts without consulting local residents. Green declined to comment.
Local residents have accused IX Wireless of bullying and intimidation in response to complaints about phone masts erected without consultation.
The Blackburn premises listed as the company’s head office appear to be unoccupied and letters sent there are returned to sender. The company did not respond to requests for comment; nor is there any suggestion that Conservative MPs will return its donations.
“Accepting donations can be fraught with reputational risks, so a prudent MP would know prospective benefactors before receiving their money,” says Steve Goodrich of Transparency International.
“Finding out whose cash is in your account after it’s arrived can put you in an awkward spot and is a situation best avoided.”
IX Wireless has other links with the Conservative party, including an endorsement from the then-culture secretary Oliver Dowden when it launched.
The cabinet minister heaped praise on the firm as an example of the kind of business of the “government’s once in a lifetime upgrade of our digital infrastructure”.
Additional reporting by Alice Horrell