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Christopher Harborne: the silent donor behind Brexit and Boris Johnson

The Thai-based businessman has given Johnson’s office £1m – the biggest donation ever to an MP. What does he hope it will achieve?

By Will Dunn

At around 4.20pm on 11 April 2008, Graham Seymour returned to his home near the Hampshire village of Highclere to find that someone had crashed a plane into his house. The two-seater aircraft was destroyed, but the pilot, who had been flying alone, fortunately survived and was taken to a nearby hospital, to be treated for a head injury and broken ribs. Seymour later found out that the pilot was the wealthy businessman Christopher Harborne, who had been attempting to land at a private airstrip he had built in the garden of the neighbouring property. It would not be the last time Harborne’s quiet, intensely private life would come into sudden and dramatic contact with the lives of others.

Flying is not Harborne’s only hobby. He is also one of the biggest individual donors in British politics, and among the most secretive. With the publication of the latest House of Commons Register of Members’ Financial Interests, Harborne has once more emerged from the blue: he was named as Boris Johnson’s biggest financial backer, having given the ex-prime minister £1m – the largest single donation ever made to an MP – in November. Electoral Commission records show he has donated more than £15m to British political parties, including over £1m to the Tories last year.

[See also: Will Boris Johnson’s million-pound donation fund a political comeback?]

Most of this money went to the Brexit Party, which was established in January 2019 to campaign for a hard or no-deal Brexit (the party rebranded as Reform UK in November 2020, and shifted its focus to campaigning against lockdowns and net-zero regulation). In 2019 and 2020, Harborne gave the party £13.7m, becoming the main source of funding for one of the fastest-moving and most effective start-ups in British political history. At the European Parliament elections in May 2019 the Brexit Party – established less than six months earlier – won 29 seats and 5.2 million votes, becoming the biggest single party in the European Parliament.

The former director of communications for the Brexit Party, Gawain Towler, recalls Harborne buying a coffee machine and a fridge on arrival at the new party’s headquarters. Towler was sent out to buy “decent tumblers”, tonic water and lemons, in case anyone needed a gin and tonic.

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And then, for a couple of days a week, as the Brexit Party became the biggest populist party in the UK, its main financial backer sat in a corner, running businesses in the UK, Thailand and the US from three computer screens that remained angled into the corner. Towler remembers Harborne as someone who “didn’t say a great deal, smiled a lot, was terribly, terribly polite and diffident”. In a populist party dominated by huge personalities, he says, Harborne “never stuck his oar in”, only volunteering opinions when consulted on matters such as freeing the UK’s financial sector from European oversight. “Obviously,” he concedes, “his discussions with Farage would have been different.”

Harborne’s money, meanwhile, spoke volumes: the Brexit Party was the biggest spender of the elections, amplifying its message with rallies and social media campaigns. “We could risk doing stuff that wasn’t tested, wasn’t tried,” says Towler, “we were able to go on this tour around the country, book decent venues… we were given the liberty not to worry about money.”

Humiliated by the result and fearful of the upcoming general election, the Tories removed Theresa May and installed the one politician more readily identifiable with Brexit than Farage. Boris Johnson’s promise of a simple EU withdrawal allowed him to replicate the Brexit Party’s success that December. Harborne finally got what he’d hoped for: a Brexiteer in Downing Street.

What did the man who paid for the Brexit Party want from leaving the EU? Like much about Harborne, it’s hard to say. Having studied engineering at Cambridge, he worked at McKinsey in the late 1980s before taking senior management positions at firms including Walkers and PepsiCo. From there, it begins to get cloudy: in 2003 he appears to have registered a business, the aviation fuel company AML Global, in Thailand, using the name “Chakrit Sakulkrit”. In 2014 the annual report of a Thai investment company, Seamico Securities, noted that Chakrit Sakulkrit had been appointed a director of the company; helpfully, the document included a photograph and short biography that were unmistakably Harborne’s.

In a long trawl through the business directories of the US, the UK, Thailand, the Bahamas and the Panama Papers, in which he appears a number of times, numerous addresses crop up for his companies, but they appear to be virtual offices favoured by company formation agents: shells, rarely if ever visited by the company owners themselves. He appears in the UK’s Companies House register as Christopher Harborne and Chakrit Sakunkrit (the Thai character lo ling can be transcribed as a roman “l” or “n”).

[See also: How politicians failed to protect the public from crypto]

One pattern that does appear in Harborne’s businesses is that beyond his interests in aviation (AML Global sells fuel, while Sherriff Global Group, of which he is CEO, sells private planes) he has a long-standing interest in deregulated finance – like many of Brexit’s wealthier supporters– and particularly cryptocurrency.

The Thai business register shows that as Sakulkrit, he has several registered Thai companies that appear to be related to cryptocurrency, while through AML Global in Hong Kong he established an enterprise with the German crypto entrepreneur Marco Streng. He was reportedly an early shareholder in iFinex, the parent company behind the crypto exchange Bitfinex and the cryptocurrency Tether. His son, Will Harborne, worked for Bitfinex from 2017 to 2019 and now runs a crypto firm incorporated in the British Virgin Islands. Harborne senior has also donated to the business school Insead, where he received his MBA, for research into the blockchain technology that underpins cryptocurrencies.

Those in receipt of Harborne’s money seem to be fellow crypto travellers. Nigel Farage’s big project after Reform has been an investment publication, Fortune & Freedom, which espouses the benefits of currencies outside government control. Last December, Boris Johnson took to a conference stage in Singapore and declared crypto a transformative technology. In the Conservative Party, Matt Hancock has also been an advocate of crypto, and may have had the UK’s approach to it in mind when he ran for chair of the Treasury Select Committee in October. And in April 2022, while still chancellor, Rishi Sunak outlined plans to make the UK a “global crypto hub” and asked the Royal Mint to create an NFT. The deregulation of the financial sector that Brexiteers had hoped for – and the legitimisation of crypto – is being ushered in by Sunak and Jeremy Hunt’s Edinburgh reforms.

To return briefly to that plane crash in 2008: the government’s Air Accident Investigation Branch reported that the flight that ended in his neighbour’s garden was Harborne’s third attempt to land at Highclere that day. On two previous occasions, strong wind and turbulence had caused him to divert to a nearby airfield, but he kept taking the risk. He could have driven to his house in around half an hour, but he does not seem to be someone who will abandon a project once committed. In the political investments he’s made in the past, that apparent appetite for risk appears to have paid off. As he places new bets, it’s worth asking what Christopher Harborne wants next.

[See also: What would happen if everyone knew your salary?]

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This article appears in the 18 Jan 2023 issue of the New Statesman, How to fix Britain’s public health crisis