The co-chair of the disgraced Presidents Club was a donor to Michael Gove’s leadership campaign - and gave more than £65,000 to the Tory party as a whole.
David Meller, who was on Wednesday forced to quit as a non-executive director of the Department for Education’s board, gave £3,250 to the former Education Secretary’s failed bid to replace David Cameron in 2016.
Meller was lined up to be finance chief for Gove’s ill-fated leadership campaign, which ended with him pulling out of the race after failing to attract enough Tory MPs.
In yet further indications of his close links to the Government, it emerged he was given a CBE in the 2018 New Year’s honours list.
Meller is also said to have hosted a dinner at his Mayfair home last October, in a bid to broker an “ideas summit” between Theresa May’s former and current No.10 team and David Cameron’s and George Osborne’s former allies. Two ministers were said to have attended.
Electoral Commission figures reveal that Meller has given a total of £65,498 to the Conservatives since 2012, with £20,000 alone during the 2015 general election.
His cash payments have helped the party in key Labour-Tory battleground seats such as Harlow, Stevenage and Watford.
He also gave £3,500 to the South West Norfolk Tory association - a seat held by Cabinet Minister Liz Truss - in 2015 and 2017.
Meller’s cash amounted to nearly £58,000 to the Tories, but a further £7,500 to Gove and former minister Rob Halfon as individuals.
The revelations of his closeness to the Tories add to pressure on Theresa May following the Financial Times’ exposure of alleged sexual harassment and assault at the Presidents Club fundraising dinner last week.
The Presidents Club, the charitable trust that hosted a men-only charity gala where women hostesses were allegedly sexually harassed, announced on Wednesday that it is to close down.
Education minister Nadhim Zahawi is facing questions over his own account of his presence at the event, despite expressing his regret for turning up to the dinner. He claims he left early because he felt ‘uncomfortable’.
Meller is listed as having given a non-cash donation of £4,473 to Halfon MP, a former minister who has pushed apprenticeships and skills.
But he has also been particularly close to Gove over the years, including his time as a trustee of Policy Exchange, the think tank founded by the Tory MP.
A wealthy businessman who built up his family’s home and beauty company, Meller has long taken an interest in education. He first sponsored academies in 2005 and went on to found his own educational charity the Meller Educational Trust.
He was invited to join the Department for Education’s advisory board in 2013 when Gove was Education Secretary, and was given a CBE in the New Year’s Honours List at the start of 2018 for “services to education”.
In 2014, he was appointed as chair of the National Apprenticeship Ambassador’s Network. At the time, the Department for Education included in a press release a an explicit reference to his role as chairman of the Presidents’ Club.
In 2016, Meller was also given another role, co-chair of the Government’s Apprenticeship Delivery Board, which had the challenge delivering on the Tory pledge to secure three million apprenticeships by 2020.
The other apprenticeship co-chair was Zahawi, who was made a minister at DfE by May this month, and who faces a string of questions over his attendance at the Presidents Club event last week.
Downing Street revealed on Wednesday that Meller had been “asked to” quit his board post at the DfE, making clear he was effectively sacked rather than resigned voluntarily.
At the ‘peace summit’ held at Meller’s home last October, May’s current deputy chief of staff Joanna Penn joined former chief Nick Timothy, former minister Nick Boles and George Osborne’s former aide Neil O’Brien MP, the Times reported.
Two serving ministers were said to have attended the event and Meller was said to be prepared to fund a new organisation to devise policies to help May restore the party’s fortunes.
The Electoral Commission also lists one ‘impermissible’ donation of £5,000 from Meller in 2016.
A Labour source told HuffPost: “We need to know what Gove and other ministers knew about Meller’s organisation. It seems to be a cosy club at the top of Government.”
Sarah Jones, who called for Nadhim Zahawi to resign during today’s Urgent Question in the House of Commons, added: “This shameful event highlights the dark underbelly still present in our society. The fact that Tory donors attended and sponsored the event tells us all you need to know about Theresa May’s party.
“This wealthy elite think they can act however they want. What are we teaching our children about what is acceptable – this is too important to go unchecked.”
A spokesman for Michael Gove refused to comment when asked about Meller’s Presidents Club role or his donations.
On Thursday, a Conservative spokesman said: “All donations to the Conservative party are properly and transparently declared to the Electoral Commission, published by them, and comply fully with the law.”.