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'He's learned from it': Rishi Sunak explains why he is refusing to hand back £15m Frank Hester donations

19 June 2024, 08:42 | Updated: 19 June 2024, 09:52

Rishi Sunak said Frank Hester had "made a mistake and honestly apologised"
Rishi Sunak said Frank Hester had "made a mistake and honestly apologised". Picture: LBC/YouTube

By Asher McShane

Rishi Sunak was grilled today on LBC over why he has refused to hand back money donated by Frank Hester.

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The Prime Minister made it clear that he would not be handing back a penny of the money, saying the wealthy Tory donor had ‘honestly apologised’ over remakes he made about Diane Abbott.

Mr Sunak said: “I do think in life if you made a mistake and honestly apologised and learned from it, as a society if that is something we can come together on, is important."

Pressed by a caller that "just saying he's apologised isn't going to cut it", Mr Sunak replied: "Maybe we disagree on this, but I believe if people are genuinely contrite... that should be accepted."

Sunak on Hester money

Read more: DWP boss Mel Stride won't say whether Frank Hester's donations will be returned - as Tories accept another £5m

Read more: Biggest Tory donor 'not racist,' but was right to apologise for 'comments that sound racist' Conservative peer tells LBC

He insisted the Tories could accept the money because Mr Hester had apologised for the comments in question.

“I would also point out that Diane Abbott has also been readmitted into the Labour Party and she herself made some comments in the past that weren’t appropriate but she apologise for those and was readmitted back into the Labour Party after having the whip removed,” he said.

“Obviously in life there are degrees of things, but I think if you’ve made a mistake, you’ve honestly apologised for it and learned from it, I do think a society where forgiveness is something we can come together on is important.”

Mr Sunak also dismissed billionaires abandoning the Tories by saying they "can afford Labour's tax rises".

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Rishi Sunak responds to former Tory donors backing Labour

He was asked about Phones4U founder John Caudwell and Manchester United co-owner Sir Jim Ratcliffe throwing their weight behind Sir Keir Starmer's party.

In the phone-in, the Prime Minister said: "They're two of Britain's richest men. They can probably afford Labour's tax rises."

Earlier in June it emerged the Conservative Party has accepted another £5 million from Mr Hester.

Electoral Commission data showed the payments from Mr Hester's healthcare software firm, the Phoenix Partnership, in January, before he became embroiled in a row over the alleged racist comments.

He also handed the Tories £10 million last year, taking the the total from the party's biggest donor to £15 million.

Ms Abbott said the latest donation was "an insult to me and all black women".

It was reported in March that the Conservative backer said in 2019 that Ms Abbott - who in 1987 became the first black woman elected to Parliament - made him want to "hate all black women" and "should be shot".

Rishi Sunak came under fire for his handling of the fallout from the remarks.

The Prime Minister eventually condemned the remarks as "racist" but resisted calls to return the money, saying the tech boss's "remorse should be accepted".

Mr Hester admitted making "rude" comments about Ms Abbott, but claimed they had "nothing to do with her gender nor colour of skin".

In response to his latest donation, Ms Abbott tweeted: "Rishi Sunak belatedly admitted Frank Hester's remarks that 'I made him hate all black woman and should be shot' were racist.

"Now it turns out Sunak accepted a further £5 million from him.

"An insult to me and all black women."

Mr Sunak should "hang his head in shame" for taking more money from Ms Hester, Liberal Democrats leader Sir Ed Davey said.

He told broadcasters during a campaign visit to Wiltshire: "I think lifelong Conservative voters will be appalled by this. I think all those other people donating money to the Tory party should ask for their donations back."

Sir Ed said "of course" the Prime Minister should hand the cash back, arguing that the saga showed "we need to reform the law" around how politics is funded as it "undermines our democracy".

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.

"If Rishi Sunak had a backbone he'd have cut ties with Frank Hester months ago, returned the money and apologised properly to Diane Abbott."

Cabinet minister Mel Stride refused to say whether the Conservatives should return the donations, while a Tory spokesman said the matter is resolved.

"I'm not going to get drawn in those kind of issues," Mr Stride told ITV's Good Morning Britain.

"I believe that Mr Hester has shown considerable remorse since making those remarks, which were utterly unacceptable."

A Conservative Party spokesman said: "Mr Hester has rightly apologised for comments made in the past. As Mr Hester has apologised and shown contrition we consider the matter resolved.

"The Conservative Party is funded by membership, fundraising and donations. All reportable donations are properly and transparently declared to the Electoral Commission, published by them, and comply fully with the law. Indeed, such observations can be made about who our donors are, precisely because our donations are transparently published.

"Fundraising is a legitimate part of the democratic process."

Meanwhile, Labour accepted another £1.5 million from major donor Dale Vince's company Ecotricity, according to the Electoral Commission data for the first quarter of 2024.

The green energy industrialist gave another £1 million to the Opposition party the day after the General Election was called, taking his total donations to £5 million, he told the Financial Times on Wednesday.

Mr Vince was criticised in March by deputy party leader Angela Rayner for saying "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter" when asked about Hamas, the militant group that carried out the October 7 attacks on Israel.

But Mr Vince said a "doctored" clip that gave a "false impression" of his Times Radio interview last year was part of a "right-wing smear" designed to "distract from the row" over Mr Hester.

His previous donations to climate group Just Stop Oil, which he halted last year, also caused controversy.

UK political parties reported accepting some £22.9 million in donations and public funds in the first three months of the year, up from £20.9 million in the same period in 2023, according to the Electoral Commission.

Louise Edwards, director of regulation and digital transformation, said: "It is common to see donations to political parties grow ahead of an expected, and now scheduled, General Election. They reached £22 million in the opening quarter of the year."

She added that the figures reflect the change to reporting thresholds, under which parties must, since the beginning of the year, report donations over £11,180 to the Commission.

"While there is no limit to the amount that parties can raise, there are spending limits in place for campaigning ahead of elections," she said.

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