New Times,
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Britain’s new oligarchy

Tom Burgis’s Cuckooland shows how the power to shape our politics is available to the highest bidder.

By Will Lloyd

It was a perfect Scottish winter evening in January 2013. The man and his much younger Russian girlfriend are chauffeur-driven from Glasgow Airport, through postcard-baiting farmland and hamlets with absurd names, towards Cumnock, towards Dumfries House. Look at Dumfries House! A Palladian mansion, square and broad and very sensible, built in the age of enlightenment, crowned with silver chimneys. A brochure calls it a “heritage secret”: here the exquisite Chippendale furniture (worth as much as the entire home, according to Christie’s), there the decorative Gobelin tapestries, a gift from the Sun King himself, Louis XIV.

The man looks from the car’s window, across the billowing lawns and the evergreen conifers that dignify the gardens. Inside, beyond the solid stone steps and the mighty front doors, waiting to receive him, is Charles – the Prince of Wales, a boyish 65-year-old; ceaseless fundraiser, ribbon-cutter and hand-shaker. But who is his guest?

That man, the millionaire “deal maker” Mohamed Amersi, is the subject, antagonist and nemesis of Tom Burgis’s short, novelistic book Cuckooland. Burgis is one of our finest investigative journalists, a muck-raker who can also turn a caustic phrase, which means he is always being summoned to court by the kind of domineering over-moneyed tycoons who are beloved by London’s least socially conscious law firms. Cuckooland is his third book, and the most alarming so far.

Taken together, his books are chapters in a sustained, convincing story about the ways extreme wealth reshapes the nation. It is hard to read Burgis and come away without thinking that Britain, over the course of 30 years, has curdled into one of those countries its citizens used to enjoy laughing at. There is much laughter in Cuckooland too: the humiliating sort.

“For two-and-a-half years,” writes Burgis of Amersi, “I have been trying to figure out who this man really is.” The answer, on this evidence, is the spirit of a rapacious and cynical age. Mohamed Amersi was born in Mombasa in 1960. His family’s roots were twisted around the old disasters and triumphs of the British empire in Africa, the Middle East and the Raj. They bought and sold things. They moved wherever money demanded they go. Like them, Mohamed would develop a well-honed instinct for commerce. Unlike them, he was sent off to Merchant Taylors’ in the 1970s, a not-quite-public school founded by a stern man in a ruff in 1561.

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The way Burgis tells it, Amersi developed  – along with a bank balance bloated by consultancy fees – a Becky Sharpe-esque longing to ascend the ranks of British society. He worked for top-flight law firms and transformed himself into a link man in the global telecoms industry: Russia, Uzbekistan and Nepal. Hawkish and charismatic, Amersi possessed “the ability to make everyone feel he’s on their side”. He became wealthy, making “$4m buying a St Petersburg telecoms company for Jeff Galmond”. (Galmond was later found by a Zurich court of arbitration to “be a front for Putin’s telecoms minister, Leonid Reiman”.) Not content with being rich, Amersi wanted repute for, as his own charitable foundation’s website put it, being a “renowned global communications entrepreneur, philanthropist and thought leader”.

Man cannot survive on thought leadership alone though. As Burgis writes, “You can climb all the way to the top. But as you haul yourself onto the summit, you will find… a wall that you couldn’t see before. And in the wall, a single door, oaken and locked. Entry is secured by birthright alone. You can’t buy your way in.” What was missing for Amersi, as the Noughties became the 2010s, were the traditional moth-eaten trappings of a successful British life: gongs and starchy Carlton Club dinners, the flattery of royals and Conservative politicians. He needed a way through the door.

The keys were in the well-tailored pocket of Cuckooland’s second great character, Ben Elliot. Amersi – the man from nowhere, desperate to slot into the establishment – is an archetypal arriviste. Elliot, the Dorset-born nephew of Queen Camilla, radiating what Tatler called in 2023 “a puppyish, public school charm”, is one of those slick modern London society ornaments who knows everybody, has been everywhere and would likely sell his own grandmother for a million quid. Bond-level handsome, unbelievably well-connected, access-all-areas-Elliot has what Amersi yearns for.

When they met, Elliot was running Quintessentially, a concierge service for global 1 per cent-ers. The company flew tea bags to Madonna in America, staged a lunch on an iceberg, closed Sydney Harbour Bridge for a marriage proposal and, before Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine in 2022, boasted about its expansive operations in Russia. It also helped Amersi haunt the halls of Dumfries House and shake Prince Charles’s royal mitt in 2013. “When Ben sends Quintessentially clients Charles’s way,” explains Burgis, “they get what money can’t buy. And Charles, he gets money” – to support his charities, of course, not to keep him in Anderson & Sheppard suits. Amersi sends a £130,000 gift. “Well done,” Elliot tells Amersi. “Lots to discuss with you.”

Cuckooland really takes off when Amersi’s donations ripple out from royalty to the Conservative Party. Amersi “breezes through the party’s vetting”. He attends its 2019 Black and White Ball in Battersea. There, top Tories flog themselves at auction to their wealthy donors. This surreal bidding war reads like a 21st-century version of an 18th-century Gillray cartoon: “You could go to Michael’s Gove’s home and be cooked a meal… a cheese-tasting session with Liz Truss… a box at Lord’s to watch cricket with the chancellor, Rishi Sunak… A game of tennis with Boris [Johnson]”. For fifty grand, Amersi buys dinner with Jeremy Hunt and a magic lesson taught by former illusionist’s assistant Penny Mordaunt. Government ministers are no better than the experiences flogged by Quintessentially: commodities to be bought and sold to whoever has the money to pay for them. The co-chairman of the Conservative Party between 2019 and 2022? Ben Elliot.

Amersi, Elliot and the Tories eventually fall out in bitter, courtroom-bound ways. Burgis records all of this through a spry, zig-zagging structure, the best parts of which take the forms of conversations between him and Amersi, who is fond of swearing: “I hope you will play this recording to your publishers as well, before they f***ing publish a pack of lies.” Amersi eventually accused the Conservatives of “access capitalism” in 2021. He told the Financial Times: “You get privileged relationships… where you are financially making a contribution to be a part of that set-up.” Cuckooland is a small peephole into the darkness of that “set-up”.

Burgis sees the story as something more profound. Amersi may have been beaten back in the courts, where he was suing Charlotte Leslie, a former Conservative MP, for defamation after she raised concerns about his business dealings before he donated to the party, but he represents the risk of “a return to a feudal reality where the word of the strong, of the rich, is gospel”. It’s a world rather like the one where Dumfries House was built in 1754, where an oligarchy was enriched by a flow of money from benighted regions of the Earth. How convincing you find Cuckooland – I found it very convincing indeed – rests on how much of that past you see in the present, and whether you believe the future will resemble it too.  

Cuckooland: Where the Rich Own the Truth
Tom Burgis
William Collins, 320pp, £18.99

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[See also: The revenge of Theresa May]

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This article appears in the 06 Mar 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Bust Britain