The gospel according to David
Keren David meets David Abrahams, the man at the heart of Labour’s Donorgate
“I’m a party animal”: David Abrahams with the ex-Labour Party general secretary Peter Watt at a Jewish Museum dinner in March 2007. Mr Watt was fired for his role in the donations scandal, but was not charged
The room is bland and stuffy, a portable air-conditioning unit blasting out hot air. David Abrahams, the Newcastle tycoon at the centre of the Labour Party’s 2007 Donorgate row, is telling me about the beautiful view from his flat many storeys above us — right over Regent’s Park, all the way to the London Eye — and setting out framed photographs on the polished table before us, to make the impersonal meeting room “more homely”.
I am a tad disappointed not to see inside the St John’s Wood flat, because I had hoped it would give clues to this mysterious man, often described as reclusive, eccentric and obsessively private, despite his highly successful business life, long political involvement and extremely active social life.
“I’m possibly the most gregarious recluse on the planet,” he says, pulling photographs from a plastic bag. “I’m a party animal.”
This room, he explains, is where he was interviewed by the Serious Fraud Office after the story broke of his donations, totalling £650,000, paid to the Labour Party through intermediaries including a Conservative-voting lollipop lady. “It was all very amicable, but when I asked them where they were from and they said the Serious Fraud Office, I felt a bit perplexed.”
Scotland Yard were following up a complaint from the Electoral Commission, which acted after newspapers broke the story of Mr Abrahams’s proxy donations. Last week, the Crown Prosecution Service announced that none of the three Labour Party treasurers investigated for possible breaches of the 2000 Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act would be charged.
The CPS found insufficient evidence to bring charges, a decision welcomed by Mr Abrahams on his new website, www.davidmartinabrahams.com, with relief and delight. Even though the CPS confirms that he was never going to be charged, his website says he was treated as a suspect — “a typing error”, says Mr Abrahams. It is clear that the prospect of anyone being charged in relation to his donations caused him a great deal of stress, and although he jokes about it — “I am determined to use my new-found notoriety in a positive way” — the relief is tangible.
“What a waste of time,” he says, “I knew my rights.” He had attended a day seminar by the Northern Regional Executive of the Labour Party to explain the new rules put forward in the 2000 Act. The expert taking the seminar had explained that you could not donate anything over £5,000 anonymously, but you could donate through third parties.
“I thought, if I’m going to donate anything over £5,000 I don’t really want to reveal my identity because I’m going to make a lot of enemies within the party, because there’s a lot of jealousy.” He made many third party donations between 2002 and 2007. “No one batted an eyelid,” he says.
He is adamant that he was not paying for access or influence. “Why would I? I had been involved in the Labour party for 20 years. If I wanted to call anyone, I knew them all.” He had been making anonymous donations for years, and is hazy about how much and when.
“I’ve got it, and people want it and I give it,” is his philosophy towards charity and the Labour Party — which goes some way towards explaining why his proxy donations backed two different candidates in the Labour deputy leadership. He shows me a list of 75 charities which have benefited from his generosity, but refuses to give me a copy in case the charities feel “tainted”.
He dismisses claims that his donations eased planning permission for his latest projects, a business park and railport in Durham, pointing out that the area was earmarked for industrial development before any donations were made. He predicts that the business park will be over-subscribed, bringing thousands of jobs to the region.
“It’s recession-proof people I’m dealing with, there’s a great feeling of confidence out there.” He says he has not suffered from the economic downturn: “I’m not a gambler.”
He started in business as a schoolboy, setting up a tutoring service for younger pupils. With the money he earned he gained bank loans, bought his first property and embarked on a career as a landlord, despite the disapproval of his father, who had long campaigned for tenants’ rights. This is why, he explains, he has always used the name David Martin in his business life, to spare his father’s embarrassment.
He prefers the name for other reasons, though. “The name Abrahams — you feel stigmatised from the start,” he says. As a small boy starting prep school, his mother asked him whether he would prefer to drop his surname and instead use Martin, his middle name, and although he did not, you sense that the doubt instilled by that early question has never left him.
He shows me the framed photographs, one by one. There is his mother, daughter of a rabbi, a violinist with the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra; and his father, resplendent as Lord Mayor of Newcastle.
Both parents were “virtually blind” he tells me and, when he was young, crossing a road with his mother was “quite scary, we had many close shaves”. His father was “knocked down five times”. These traumatic experiences had put him off driving and car ownership for life.
His parents owned and ran a working men’s club, were extremely active in the Labour Party and planned to send him to Clifton College, the Bristol public school with a Jewish house. Young Abrahams fought to avoid boarding school — “I wasn’t someone who could be institutionalised” — and won a reprieve: he could go to the local grammar school if he spent weekends and holidays with his grandmother, because his parents were working.
He proudly displays his most treasured photograph. It was taken at Buckingham Palace, where he is presenting his 107-year-old grandmother to the Queen and Prince Philip. (“You’re not allowed to take pictures but I got a photographer on to the palace roof,” he told me, typical of the many anecdotes that leave one gasping for more detail as Mr Abrahams gallops off in a different conversational direction).
The working men’s club was hugely successful, but had to be sold when protection gangs started operating in Newcastle.
“People started turning up late at night with horrible weapons,” he says, recalling the night he threw a bucket of water over a man at the front door armed with a scimitar. Eventually his father got shot — “the bullet came through the plate glass window” — and the club was sold.
His parents were more active in the non-Jewish community, seeing more scope for good works, but his father worked with the Jewish Welfare Society and supported the local old age home.
Mr Abrahams tries to continue their work, and with his earnest talk of constituency cases, you have to remind yourself that the nearest he came to a seat in Parliament was an abortive attempt to be adopted as the Labour candidate for Richmond, Yorkshire.
He was selected but quickly de-selected after it was discovered that his supposed wife and child, Anthea Bailey and her son, were nothing of the kind.
He refutes stories that he paid Ms Bailey to pose as his wife, instead claiming that she was paid handsomely by the tabloids to say so. She was in fact his fiancée, he says, and it was she who had insisted on turning her ring around to make it look like a wedding ring. “I was impulsive,” he admits. “We’d only been together for ten weeks.” He says he’s had “scores” of girlfriends, but remains resolutely single. “You never know what the future holds,” he says.
The Richmond constituency officers were also unhappy that their candidate had shaved several years off his age — almost as unhappy as Mr Abrahams is when the subject comes up. It is clear that he sees his age as a far bigger embarrassment than any number of political blunders, fake wives or multiple aliases. “If I feel 35, what does it matter if I am really 45?” he says, an under-estimate as heartfelt as it is liberal. In fact, he is 65.
Back to his framed photographs. One of the most surreal shows a conference table headed by Yasir Arafat, with Mr Abrahams, Zelig-like, seated nearby. He is enormously proud of his links with the Palestinian people, seeing himself as someone who can help bring peace to the Middle East, and boasts of talking to “moderate” members of Hamas.
“You’ve got to bring in both sides,” he says. “I do all I can to facilitate communication.” What does he think he can offer the Palestinians? “I can listen to their side. That’s what people want. The tragedy of the Middle East is that too much is said before the deal is done. In one word, what is needed is trust.”
His dream is to see an economic confederation in the Middle East, leading to co- operation on matters like water and energy, with Jews from Arab lands returning to build economic prosperity in the lands they came from.
He backs his ideas with hard cash, endowing a chair in Middle East politics at Warwick University. Now he hopes to arrange, with Warwick, a symposium to which he plans to invite Hillary Clinton and many Middle East leaders. “I’ve always wanted a London conference on the Middle East,” he says.
Many of the charities he supports enable interfaith communication and he sees his role as “bringing non-Jewish people together for Israel”.
With his emphasis on communication and faith, he seems a natural to back Tony Blair’s new Faith Foundation. But it was suggested, he says, that he kept a low profile during the police investigation. He will not say who made the suggestion, and plays down his links with Mr Blair, embarrassed by the criticism that came his way after he was spotted in the front row when Blair announced that he was stepping down as Prime Minister.
“I was only in the front row because the constituency chairman asked me to sit there,” he says. “It was a very small room.”
Our interview nearly over, it is time to tackle a contentious matter, the lawsuit brought by Mr Abrahams against the JC at the height of the Donorgate scandal, a lawsuit he subsequently dropped. Mr Abrahams finds me a transcript of a Newsnight interview he gave at the time, in which he denounced the JC as a “tabloid…it’s sensationalist”.
What has changed? Why is he happily chatting to me now, and going so far as to lend me some of his prized photographs? “Time is a great healer,” he says, airily.
He is keen to stress his many links with the Jewish community, from his days as a young boy attending a Gateshead yeshivah — “brilliant training for the memory”. Now he is a member of two synagogues and says his faith is very important to him. “The Jewish religion is the oldest and most impressive.”
Freed of the worry of a court case over his donations, Mr Abrahams is happy to consider giving money to Labour again, and thinks Gordon Brown is a “superb” leader, although he favours state funding of political parties and would only give under his own name. He will continue to support many charities, including one for men’s cancer.
Our time is up, as Mr Abrahams’ personal trainer has arrived. She trundles the large heater out of the room, and I remark on how hot it is. “I’m very temperature sensitive,” he says.
“My life’s not structured,” he adds, “I’m very easy going. For me, every day is an adventure.”
The standfirst to our article entitled "The gospel according to David" (15 May, above), which was an interview with David Abrahams, said "I am the man to bring Middle East peace". Although Mr Abrahams explained how he hoped to help the Middle East peace process, as set out in the interview, he has asked us to make it clear that he did not use these words or suggest that he was the only or the most important person in this process."