Anyone for sanctions? Dave 'n' Boris tennis match goes ahead

As EU diplomats consider tougher sanctions against Russia, PM refuses to budge over £160k donation

Column LAST UPDATED AT 10:32 ON Thu 24 Jul 2014

The controversial doubles tennis match between David Cameron and Boris Johnson and a husband-and-wife team with links to Vladmir Putin is still on, despite EU ambassadors meeting today to consider tougher sanctions against Russia over the downing of Flight MH17.

Lubov Chernukhin, a London-based banker whose husband Vladimir was deputy finance minister during Putin's first term as president, won the right to the "ultimate tennis match" - as it was dubiously billed – when she made an unbeatable £160,000 bid for it at a Tory party fund-raising event earlier this month. 

Cameron has been urged by politicians on both sides to call off the match and return the cash. Labour MP John Mann said: "He has got to hand the money back – it is one of the easiest sanctions that can be imposed… He [Cameron] cannot be seen to be consorting on a tennis court with individuals who have been part of Putin's inner circle."

But the PM is refusing to do any such thing and the game is on, according to today's Daily Telegraph.

Whoever wins the match – and the Mole, having seen Dave and Boris in action before, has his money on the Russians – the loser, politically at least, looks like being the Prime Minister.

The Tory party's story is that while the Chernukhins were once viewed as "inadmissable" donors, they are no longer considered as such, having distanced themselves from the Putin regime since Chernukhin was sacked by Putin in 2004. They live in London and both have become British citizens. Their money is as good as any multi-millionaire's, say the Tories.

Try explaining that, however, to your European allies – especially President Hollande of France who has been under pressure from Cameron to tear up a E1.2 billion contract with Moscow over the provision of two helicopter assault ships, one of which is ready for action and has been paid for. 

To borrow from the Wimbledon lexicon, Hollande, informed of Cameron's tennis match, had every right to respond: "You cannot be serious!" 

Needless to say, the Mayor of London has played his part in making the entire episode as awkward as possible. When he was first asked about the controversy, Johnson told Sky News: "I know about this tennis match - they volunteered me to play tennis with some geezer and it's very, very important that full checks are carried out to ensure this is not someone who is an intimate of Putin or a crony and we are doing that at the moment."

Then Cameron, speaking on a visit to the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, said that handing the money back was not "the right approach" because Mrs Chernukhin had "lived in Britain for many years" and was now a British citizen.

At which point Boris quickly fell into line, issuing a statement that said: "We need to exert maximum pressure on Putin to do the right thing in Ukraine by targeting him and his cronies.

"I'm assured by the government that Mr Chernukhin doesn't fall into that category. It's important that we don't lash out with measures that would simply attack all Russians everywhere."

Boris, of course, will have been delighted to be let off the hook by Cameron. He doesn’t want to put off the wealthy Russians who are keep the London Stock Exchange buoyant and help maintain London property prices at boiling point.

But the backlash against Cameron for apparently demanding one rule for France and another for Britain increased yesterday when it emerged from the all-party Commons Committee on Arms Exports Controls that Britain has export licences worth £132 million for arms to Russia. Hypocrisy – moi? Non, non, non - they're mainly sniper rifles and night sights are for hunting, not for warfare, says Downing Street.  

What the EU ambassadors decide today remains to be seen. A European Commission options paper issued to EU capitals last night includes a ban on all European citizens from investing in stocks issued by the Russian banks. The Financial Times, which has seen the paper, says it is highly unlikely the EU ambassadors will go that far.

Other options include an embargo on the transfer of energy technology (but that could impact on the EU economy) and an arms embargo (but that would largely hurt former Soviet countries who still need to import spare parts from Russia to keep their old Soviet arsenals on the go). So Cameron can’t expect much support from today’s EU meeting.

All this, coming so soon after the Jean-Claude Juncker debacle, augurs badly for Cameron’s hopes of ever persuading his European partners that Britain should be able to repatriate powers from Brussels.

Still, Cameron's not the only one whistling in the wind. The Daily Telegraph is reporting that members of Angela Merkel’s party in Germany are calling for Fifa to strip Russia of the 2018 World Cup. Anyone who understands the workings of the world football authority will know that the idea of Fifa taking such high-minded action is for the birds. ·