What first attracted Theresa May to the stupendously wealthy wife of Vladimir Putin’s one-time deputy finance minister? That’s one of several questions raised by the Mail’s revelation that Russian oligarch’s wife Lubov Chernukhin dined with the PM and six female Cabinet ministers at a hotel near Buckingham Palace this week.
On Wednesday, we published a picture of the group — who were served asparagus, Beef Wellington and Eton Mess — posing outside the venue’s Michelin-starred dining room.
Liz Truss, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, had posted it on her Instagram account. She described the evening as a glamorous ‘ladies night’ and a celebration of ‘girl power’. Another interpretation, however, is that the event was a shameless (not to say ethically contorted) exercise in generating cold, hard cash.
For Mrs Chernukhin owes her access to Britain’s most powerful group of women to one thing alone: her bank balance. With her husband Vladimir, she’s estimated to be worth at least £200 million. And in recent years, she’s chosen to use a portion of her wealth to buy access to senior Conservatives.
1 Karen Bradley, Northern Ireland Sec; 2 Baroness Evans, Leader of the Lords; 3 Caroline Nokes, Immigration minister; 4 Amber Rudd, Work and Pensions Sec; 5 Andrea Leadsom, Leader of the Commons; 6 Liz Truss, Treasury Chief Sec; 7 Theresa May; 8 Lubov Chernukhin
Lubov Chernukhin (wife to Vladimir Chernukhin) has also paid £20,000 to dine with Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader, in Edinburgh, and £30,000 for a meal with the Defence Secretary at Churchill’s War Rooms in Whitehall
Her seat at this week’s dinner was achieved via a fundraising auction at a Tory party event — costing Mrs Chernukhin £135,000.
She has also paid £20,000 to dine with Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader, in Edinburgh, and £30,000 for a meal with the Defence Secretary at Churchill’s War Rooms in Whitehall.
A few years ago, she spent £160,000 at a black-tie Tory bash to play a game of tennis against the then-leader David Cameron and Boris Johnson.
The latter’s strategist Lynton Crosby agreed to be ball boy.
In total, the 46-year-old — who has Russian heritage but now appears to hold a UK passport — has given the Conservative Party £908,000 in 35 separate donations.
That makes her, by some margin, the biggest female donor in British political history.
This largesse began in earnest in 2012 when, after a £10,000 donation was rejected because she was initially ruled an ‘impermissible donor’ by the Electoral Commission (it appeared she was not then on the electoral roll), she made two donations totalling £14,250.
Since then, Mrs Chernukhin’s beneficiaries have ranged from party chairman Brandon Lewis, who accepted two donations totalling £9,500, to local Tory associations in London and Cameron’s Witney, which got £4,220.
(Her links to Cameron also involve a commercial relationship with his former spin doctor Giles Kenningham, a lobbyist who’s now Mrs Chernukhin’s spokesman.)
President Vladimir Putin (right) is pictured at a meeting with Vladimir Chernukhin (left) at a meeting in 2008
Chief Secretary to the Treasury Liz Truss posted the picture of the cabinet ministers with Theresa May from the Goring Hotel on her Instagram account
The vast majority of her donations have been made directly to central Tory coffers — £276,000 in the past 12 months alone.
So who is Lubov Chernukhin? Where does her money come from? And is it appropriate for her to be allowed to buy intimate access to the British Prime Minister?
One person who might have some idea is an esteemed High Court Judge, Mr Justice Teare.
He recently presided over a lengthy trial in which Mrs Chernukhin’s husband was sued by a fellow oligarch, the billionaire Oleg Deripaska, over the ownership of a textiles factory in Moscow.
At stake was around £70 million, and during the course of the case, both Mr and Mrs Chernukhin were called to the stand to give evidence under oath.
What did Mr Justice Teare make of it? Well in his verdict, published in February, he delivered a withering assessment of their integrity, branding both of the couple unreliable witnesses.
Mr Chernukhin, he declared, had demonstrated a ‘willingness to mislead’ during his three-to-four days under oath, leading the judge to come to the view that: ‘I should exercise great caution before accepting his evidence.’
Lubov Chernukhin performed similarly during her day on the stand, he found, as her answers to questions about the couple’s affairs ‘sometimes contradicted . . . contemporaneous documents’.
Mr Justice Teare observed that: ‘The manner in which she gave her evidence did not suggest to me that it was safe to rely upon what she said was her recollection.’ He continued: ‘In her evidence, she was not being frank with the court,’ adding: ‘Great caution is required before accepting her evidence.’
In total, the 46-year-old — who has Russian heritage but now appears to hold a UK passport — has given the Conservative Party £908,000 in 35 separate donations. Pictured: Lubov Chernukhin (right) with singer Valeriya (centre) in London
Although he eventually found in favour of Mr Chernukhin, the judge wrote: ‘The depressing fact is that there was good reason to doubt the honesty of each of the principal actors in this case.’
These are the recent thoughts of one of the nation’s senior judges. And yet Mrs Chernukhin is apparently considered an appropriate person not to only donate large sums of money to the Conservatives, but also to meet the Prime Minister for dinner this week.
What else is there to consider? As with so many self-made Russian gazillionaires, very little information about Mrs Chernukhin and her spouse is available from public records. One might say that trying to track down their financial assets is like nailing jelly to a wall.
Take, for example, her family homes. Title deeds for her main London residence, a vast property overlooking Regent’s Park bought for £18 million in 2005, contain no mention of either Lubov or her husband. It is owned by a firm called Killaine, registered in the British Virgin Islands tax haven.
A £10 million Kensington flat the couple are believed to own is registered to firms in a different tax haven: Jersey.
A few years ago, she spent £160,000 at a black-tie Tory bash to play a game of tennis against the then-leader David Cameron and Boris Johnson
The Chernukhins also seem to boast villas near St Tropez in the South of France. These are registered to holding companies in Guernsey, Madeira, Portugal and Switzerland.
Somewhat less glamorously, Lubov is named on a Russian state database as a resident of a drab 12-storey Soviet block of flats 11 miles north of Moscow. The three-room property, on the 11th floor, is worth around £120,000.
In 2014, when the database was last updated, she was listed as resident with her mother and elder brother. He refused to comment when the Mail visited this week.
On the corporate front, at Companies House Lubov is listed as a director of just one active UK company: a property firm called Capital Construction And Development Ltd. Its most recent accounts, filed last June, show assets of £68,000 and debts of £8 million.
Under her maiden name, Golubeva, Mrs Chernukhin has also been a director of five British businesses that have been dissolved. None appear to have generated much cash, or paid much tax.
Four were ‘non-trading’ companies, in which she served as a director with Aigul Nurieva, a controversial Kazakh businesswoman, from 2005 to 2008.
One was a loss-making oil services firm called SEL, of which she was a director from 2006-2007 and which entered administration shortly afterwards.
Shares in one of these non-trading firms, Spa4U, were held by a Hong Kong-based company