Two years ago, Boris Johnson visited Howletts Wild Animal Park where he was introduced to cheetahs Saba and Nairo.
In a newspaper article praising the zoo and its proprietor, the gambling tycoon and conservationist Damian Aspinall, our future Prime Minister waxed lyrical about how the animals had decided to ‘nibble my beanie hat’.
‘Damian’s plan in the next year or so is to release both Saba and his brother to South Africa,’ he wrote, adding that Mr Aspinall’s conservation work ‘is British and pioneering, and it deserves support’.
Fast forward to the present day, and the favour has been returned — with interest.
It was announced last week that Mr Johnson’s fiancee, Carrie Symonds, has been hired as Head of Communications for The Aspinall Foundation, a charity that oversees both the zoo and its sister venue, the Port Lympne Safari Park near Hythe, along with its wider conservation work.
Making her return to work after giving birth to their son Wilfred, the former Conservative spin-doctor — who also campaigns on green and animal rights issues — will work from a Downing Street flat to promote the charity’s worthy efforts to breed endangered species and return them to their natural habitat.
Former Conservative spin doctor Carrie Symonds has marked her return to work since giving birth to her and Boris Johnson son Archie by joining The Aspinall Foundation as its Head of Communications. An investigation has found the charity has a curious commercial relationship with its owner Damian Aspinall (pictured with Ms Symonds)
‘She is a passionate champion for wildlife and conservation, whose energy and expertise will be a huge asset to us,’ said Mr Aspinall.
Ms Symonds used Instagram to post a picture of Wilfred in a cheetah-patterned onesie to highlight the work of the charity.
‘Just this weekend we are rewilding two cheetahs, brothers named Kumbe and Jabari, from captivity in Canada to a conservancy in Zimbabwe,’ she wrote.
Her appointment has transformed the status of the foundation, hitherto a relatively obscure non-profit group founded by her boss’s father John, a Right-wing maverick and crony of Lord Lucan known as ‘Aspers’ who became stupendously wealthy after founding Mayfair’s notorious Clermont Club casino in the 1960s.
For at a single stroke, it becomes arguably the most politically connected charity in Britain.
Run not just by the PM’s fiancee, but by a cabal of Aspinall’s wealthy backers and allies, the foundation’s governing clique appears to now exert a quite extraordinary influence over the Government’s ‘green agenda’.
In Tory circles, they are nicknamed the ‘eco-chumocracy’.
Given the financial relationship that now exists between the foundation and Downing Street, I can further reveal that several aspects of the charity’s internal affairs are highly unconventional.
For the non-profit organisation not only owns Mr Aspinall’s stately home — which is rented to him at what appears to be a generous discount to market rates — but has also been paying his wife, Victoria, tens of thousands of pounds to design the interior of some of the zoo’s properties.
More on that later.
The foundation’s creator John Aspinall was an eccentric who shared Hitler’s penchant for eugenics and was famed for letting exotic animals such as lions and elephants roam the grounds of Howletts House, his enormous grade-II listed Palladian home, which was built in 1787 on parkland near Canterbury.
For years, John used the property to entertain the so-called ‘Clermont set’ of high-rolling gamblers whose leading lights included Lucan, the nightclub impresario Mark Birley (who founded Annabel’s), the industrialist Sir Jimmy Goldsmith, and a generation of raffish aristocrats and gangsters.
In the 1970s ‘Aspers’ opened it to the public as a zoo, where keepers were encouraged to fraternise with large animals.
Initially, Howletts gained notoriety for a health and safety record that, in the 1980s and 1990s, saw three keepers killed by tigers, two crushed to death by elephants and a toddler’s arm ripped off by a chimpanzee.
The non-profit organisation not owns Mr Aspinall’s stately home and rents it to him for just £2,500 a month – what appears to be a generous discount to market rates
In comparison, a terraced home in nearby Canterbury is currently on the market for £2,561 per month
Following his death in 2000, the park was taken over by Damian, a twice-married 60-year-old who was, in his youth, one of Britain’s most prolific swordsmen, stepping out with (among many, many others) the models Naomi Campbell, Elle Macpherson, Normandie Keith, Lisa Butcher, and actress/singer Lisa Barbuscia.
Defying his playboy reputation, Mr Aspinall — who is father of two grown-up daughters by socialite ex-wife Louise Sebag-Montefiore, and one teenage daughter by actress Donna Air (whom he dated for six years but never got round to marrying) — he transformed the reputation of Howletts.
Today, it’s a world leader in the tricky business of breeding endangered animals in captivity before releasing them, having ‘re-wilded’ eight black rhinos, 159 primates and 70 gorillas, in addition to the aforementioned cheetahs.
Some see this work as a blueprint for how zoos can help prevent the extinction of rare species.
To supporters its work is, as Boris Johnson once put it, truly ‘pioneering’.
The charity’s links to Downing Street run far deeper than Ms Symonds.
It turns out to be almost entirely run by key figures in what one newspaper this week dubbed the ‘niche Brexiteering conservationist wing of the Conservative Party’ — a small but wealthy cabal which seems to now hold considerable sway over not just Mr Johnson’s affections but his government’s positions on a host of contentious issues related to the environment and animal welfare.
Their key power-broker is Zac Goldsmith, the socialite and former editor of The Ecologist magazine.
A close chum of both Ms Symonds and Mr Aspinall who once stood unsuccessfully as Tory candidate for Mayor of London, Goldsmith lost his seat as an MP at the last election only to be instantly ennobled by the Prime Minister and parachuted into a ministerial role at Defra.
In his new role, the unelected Lord Goldsmith of Richmond has supported a host of policies historically endorsed by the animal rights lobby.
He is, for example, opposed to culling badgers to reduce the spread of bovine TB.
He appears to support a ban on the import of foie gras, saying its production ‘raises serious animal welfare concerns’ and has called for fur to be outlawed in the UK.
He has also promised to legislate against so-called trophy hunting by Britons overseas.
Each of these positions is shared by Ms Symonds, whose support for animal rights recently saw her named Person of the Year by Peta.
With her support, and Goldsmith’s ministerial input, such views are expected to inform an Animal Welfare Bill that the Government is scheduled to bring forward later this year.
That prospect is already causing disquiet on the Tory backbenches, where many MPs, particularly in rural seats, believe they have serious and sometimes unintended consequences.
Ending the badger cull, for example, will impact already-threatened populations of hedgehogs and ground-nesting birds which they predate, along with the viability of the cattle farming industry where roughly 30,000 animals are currently slaughtered each year due to TB.
Fur bans could render everything from the Household Cavalry’s ceremonial headgear to fashionable Canada Goose jackets illegal.
And a law preventing trophy hunting may threaten not just conservation practices in sub-Saharan Africa but the deer-stalking industry in Scotland.
‘These are not proper Conservative policies and may Tory MPs strongly oppose them,’ is how an informed source puts it.
‘If Boris lets them anywhere near the Animal Welfare Bill, it will be a mess. The suspicion frankly will be that Carrie and Zac have bent his ear; that will cause a political stink.’
If so, the Aspinall Foundation will be at its heart.
Boris Johnson, pictured with fiance Ms Symonds outside Downing Street on Wednesday, wrote a glowing review of the Howletts Wild Animal Park in 2019 – two years later it appears the favour has been returned, with interest
Goldsmith has intimate connections to the charity which now employs the PM’s fiancee, as both a lifelong family friend of its founder and, until August 2019, one of its trustees.
Meanwhile his brother Ben — a Tory donor who thanks to Mr Johnson’s patronage now sits on the board of Defra — shares many of his brother’s views on green issues and is a serving trustee.
As is their half-brother Robin Birley, the son of Mayfair impresario and Annabel’s founder Mark.
Robin was a generous donor to Mr Johnson’s leadership campaign who has frequently hosted the PM at 5 Hertford Street, his exclusive private members’ club.
He has a tragic connection to Howletts, having been mauled by a tiger there as a child, an incident that left him with permanent facial scarring.
Also on the charity’s board is Damian Aspinall and his grown-up daughter Tansy, plus one Charles Filmer, a wealth manager who has worked closely with Zac and (a few years back) helped facilitate his donations to the Tory Party.
Only one member, a hedge fund manager and former JP Morgan banker called Maarten Petermann, has no known previous links to either Mr Johnson or the Conservatives.
The charity’s only other ex-trustee is George Osborne’s uncle James, an arch-Brexiteer and former business associate of both John Aspinall and the Goldsmith boys’ late father, Sir James.
It’s all rather cosy. Incestuous even.
Which means the foundation can in future expect its affairs to be very closely scrutinised indeed.
Take the small matter of this suddenly-influential animal charity’s finances.
According to documents filed with the Charity Commission, the Aspinall Foundation has a curious and previously unreported commercial relationship with Damian and his family.
Specifically: it happens to be his landlord. Annual accounts reveal that the foundation — rather than Mr Aspinall — is the actual owner of Howletts House, where they live.
He is instead the non-profit organisation’s tenant, and for years has been quietly paying rent in return for the right to call the property his family home.
That rent was last year fixed at the grand total of £2,500 per month. On paper, this seems at best odd.
The sum — some £30,000 a year — is almost comically insignificant: a mere fraction of the amount that a stately pile in this corner of Home Counties might fetch on the open market.
Indeed, it is less than the going rate for the rental of five-bedroomed terraced student houses advertised in nearby Canterbury.
Zac Goldsmith, pictured with Boris Johnson in 2016, is part of a ‘niche Brexiteering conservationist wing of the Conservative Party’ — a small but wealthy cabal which seems to now hold considerable sway over not just Mr Johnson’s affections but his government’s positions on a host of contentious issues related to the environment and animal welfare
What’s more, the rent has been reduced dramatically in recent years. In 2016, he paid nearly £4,000 per month. In 2014, it was £3,180.
This is problematic.
Charity law dictates that trustees, such as, in this case, Mr Aspinall, cannot usually benefit financially from their role.
In normal circumstances, the only exception is when that benefit is specifically permitted under the charity’s constitution.
Neither should charities, which enjoy considerable tax breaks and other benefits, generally use their resources to provide subsidised accommodation to already very wealthy people.
Particularly in a listed Palladian mansion.
So what’s going on? I have been able to establish that the foundation’s board — who are required to always take decisions that are in the best interest of the charity, rather than Mr Aspinall — are adamant that the £2,500-a-month fee is both legal and appropriate.
This view is informed by a number of factors which the board (most of whom are, of course, old friends) believes make a direct market comparison with other local properties meaningless.
Firstly, the terms of the lease on Howletts House require Mr Aspinall to spend significant amounts each year on property maintenance and upkeep, as well as insurance.
Secondly, they believe the unique location of the building in the middle of a tourist attraction means its value cannot be assessed like that of a normal rental property.
Thirdly, the trustees believe that having him on-site provides a substantial benefit to the organisation, since he is closely involved in the wildlife park’s day-to-day work.
In other words, they have concluded that £2,500-a-month represents a good deal for the Aspinall Foundation.
However, the question of how much time the Aspinalls spend at Howletts is far from straightforward: Mrs Aspinall told a recent interviewer that the couple live in Knightsbridge from Monday to Friday and only use Howletts at weekends, saying: ‘You leave the city with the stress of the world on your shoulders but as soon as you arrive here with the wolves howling it has gone.’
So he’s not on-site ‘full time’.
The rental of Howletts House isn’t the only unusual commercial relationship between Mr Aspinall’s family and the Trust, either.
For the charity’s accounts reveal that it decided to pay his wife, Victoria, no less than £62,000 in 2018 and 2019 to provide ‘interior design services’ to the charity.
Again, this is highly unconventional.
The dependants of a charity trustee are only usually allowed to benefit financially from that charity in limited circumstances.
Moreover, at the time she got the job, which appears to have involved overseeing the renovation of rental properties in its wildlife parks, Mrs Aspinall does not appear to have been an established professional interior designer.
It’s also unclear why the wife of a multi-millionaire (Aspinall’s UK chain of mega-casinos, Aspers, made £9 million profit last year) did not elect to carry out charity work for free.
A source with knowledge of this arrangement is adamant that it represented a ‘terrific deal’ for the foundation.
‘Victoria is a high-flyer who gave up a very senior role at Burberry to take on the work,’ they said.
‘Moreover, she did an absolutely superb job. The buildings she did up generated £20 million in revenue. Had the charity decided to employ a professional firm charging market rates, we’d have paid ten times the amount.’
The source insisted that Mrs Aspinall is now a professional interior designer, although Companies House records show that her design firm was only incorporated in November 2019, more than a year after she was added to the foundation’s payroll.
Individuals close to the board are at pains to insist that Mr Aspinall took no part in its discussions involving the decision to hire Victoria.
They insist that, although the trustees are almost all close friends or members of the Aspinall family, its members are rigorous in adopting an independent approach to matters that affect Damian’s lifestyle and financial position.
A further financial tie between the Aspinall family and the foundation comes via Damian’s step-mother, Lady Sarah Aspinall, the widow of his wealthy father.
She is paid a pension worth some £30,000 a year by the wildlife parks. It is believed to be in return for her service over several decades as their ‘head gardener’.
In a statement about its finances — issued by Ms Symonds in her new role — the charity says: ‘The Aspinall Foundation is and always has been fully committed to meeting its legal obligations as both a charity and a private company.
‘As an organisation, we always seek to operate in a transparent and ethical manner, with the oversight of independent trustees.’
Be that as it may, I gather the foundation has been required to provide detailed information about the arrangements to the Charity Commission.
The regulator is apparently satisfied that they were entirely above board and, according to an informed source, ‘signed off’ the arrangement.
It follows that there can be no suggestion of anything improper having occurred.
However, that pre-dated its decision to employ the fiancee of the Prime Minister.
Whether her new role will now focus attention on the charity’s excellent conservation work, or end up leading to unwelcome scrutiny of its financial affairs and the political agendas of its various trustees, remains to be seen.