Greek Cypriot businessman Haris Sophoclides - Harry to his friends - is one of three wealthy individuals listed in a leaked Labour document as pledging pounds 1m each this year to the party's coffers. Along with David Goldman, the chairman of a telecom equipment company, and Sir Maurice Hatter, an electronics tycoon, the mysterious Mr Sophoclides is a leading member of a "millionaires club" expected to rescue the party from its debts and underwrite Tony Blair's next general election campaign.
Mr Sophoclides may not have the fame of Mick Hucknall or the street-cred of Alan McGee, both avid Labour donors, but he certainly has the funds. As the owner of one of the largest property and construction firms in the Middle East, the self-confessed self-made man oversees a business empire with a turnover of pounds 500m a year. The managing director of J&P Ltd, his company builds airports, military bases, hotels and hospitals all over the globe. But it is as the leader of Britain's 250,000-strong Greek Cypriot community that the 59-year-old tycoon has most contact with the Labour Party - contact that certainly prompts Labour's critics to wonder just what the millionaire gets in return.
When John Prescott and his wife Pauline touched down at Larnaca International Airport in Cyprus in August last year, the tall, well-dressed man who stepped out of the shadows to greet them was none other than Mr Sophoclides. It was the second year running that he had offered to be the Prescotts' host, promising a relaxing fortnight in the sun for the Deputy Prime Minister after his taxing stint filling in for Mr Blair over the summer.
The millionaire gave Mr Prescott the run of his pounds 1m villa on the exclusive Thera estate, five miles from the coastal resort of Limassol. The two- storey villa, complete with swimming pool and stunning views over the Mediterranean, allowed the DPM to unwind far from prying eyes and he certainly appreciated the privacy it afforded him.
Mr Sophoclides said at the time that he had offered the villa free of charge, but Mr Prescott had declined, preferring instead to pay a commercial rate. Mr Prescott also used J&P's private jet to fly back to the UK, again paying his own way. Perhaps recognising that arranging holidays for the Deputy Prime Minister might be misconstrued, Sophoclides said: "The reason John Prescott went [to Thera] last year, and again this year, was because not a soul approached him and he actually had a break."
Mr Prescott and Mr Sophoclides are unashamed old friends, but their relationship extends further than providing a sun-filled haven to escape from the stresses of Government. Sophoclides was also the conduit for a substantial donation from wealthy Greek businessmen to a trust financing Prescott's private office in the run-up to the last election.
The fund was set up as a "blind trust", intended to prevent Prescott knowing the identity of the donors. Some within the party see such trusts as more short-sighted than blind, and Labour suspended them following claims that they were causing more trouble than they were worth. While there is no suggestion of any impropriety in the arrangements, nor of any breach of ministerial or Parliamentary rules about gifts or influence, the Prescott holidays point to a wider phenomenon of Labour MPs' connections with Greek Cypriots.
In keeping with his mysterious status, Mr Sophoclides is president of the archaically named but powerful Greek Cypriot Brotherhood. The group made a large donation to Labour last year and actively helps MPs take "research trips" to the island to let them see the beaches and hotels at first hand. Sophoclides' 30-year-old son, Tony, has even for the past four years worked for Prescott as a parliamentary researcher.
The millionaire's other main link to the Government emerged last year, when it was revealed that he was listed as a "Commons researcher" to Alan Meale, then a junior minister in Mr Prescott's Environment, Transport and Regions Department. Given that he has rarely visited the thickly carpeted confines of Westminster, it certainly seemed a strange move by Mr Meale, though he defended it stoutly at the time. "I need his advice either on matters related to Cyprus or I just wanted to ask his advice on one or two things," Mr Meale said. "I have received no benefit whatsoever from anything that Harry does in his private life."
The Greek Cypriot Brotherhood is one of three groups that between them have paid for Meale, occasionally accompanied by his wife, to go on six trips to Cyprus, all declared by the MP. Even though his constituency, Mansfield, has no significant Greek Cypriot community, one of the groups also made a small contribution to Meale's 1997 election expenses. Meale, whose Cyprus links go back at least five years, also sponsored a Commons motion condemning the Turkish invasion and calling for the island to be reunited so that it could join the EU.
As head of the Brotherhood and the Federation of Greek Cypriots in Britain, Mr Sophoclides and his friends have paid for 10 Labour MPs in total to travel free of charge to the island. Those who have, quite properly, declared such trips include Meale; Lord Dixon, the former shadow deputy chief whip; Joan Ryan, MP for Enfield North; Ronnie Campbell, MP for Blyth Valley; and Andrew Dismore, MP for Hendon.
More than 20 others, including Tony Benn; Bernie Grant; Barbara Roche, a Home Office minister; Joyce Quin, an Agriculture minister; Kevin Hughes, an assistant whip; and Gerald Kaufman, the former shadow foreign secretary, have also declared trips. Many of the MPs claim that the visits are actually pretty hard work, involving a series of meetings in an effort to find a "true picture" on the ground of one of the world's longest-running territorial disputes.
Tories have also been targeted, with former cabinet ministers Gillian Shepherd and Michael Howard having made their own fact-finding tours. But in lobbying Labour, the Greek Cypriots are continuing a long tradition of the party supporting their fight for unification of the island. In a pre-election statement, Robin Cook told Cypriot residents of north London that the Labour Government would work "tirelessly to secure a just and lasting settlement". Mr Prescott himself has repeatedly spoken out about the injustice of the situation. Last year, he opened the Finchley branch of the Cyprus Popular Bank, clearly advocating the country's application to join the EU.
Mr Sophoclides said this weekend that the leaked Labour document had overestimated his financial commitment to the party. But he did admit to meeting Amanda Delew, the head of Labour's "High Value Fund Unit", and to being asked to donate "thousands of pounds".
From Neil Hamilton's brown envelopes to "Dyno-Rod" Richards's extra-marital affairs, Labour made great play in Opposition of the so-called "sleaze" of the last Tory government. Former Northern Ireland minister Michael Mates was forced to resign over his own close links with Asil Nadir, the fugitive who fled to Turkish-controlled north Cyprus. Not a prime reason for the party's 1997 landslide, it unquestionably added the final touch to the tired image of the Tories.
The problem for Labour is that having let the sleaze genie out of the bottle, it is proving hard to squeeze back in. While the latest controversy centres on the question of political influence rather than personal impropriety, Mr Blair hasn't been slow in leading the charge against the Tories' reliance on their treasurer, Michael Ashcroft, another millionaire who doesn't mind paying a fortune on the political roulette wheel. The Conservatives' dependence on one man could only undermine them, it was claimed, and Labour MP after Labour MP got up to demand what exactly Mr Ashcroft would get in return.
With revelations that millionaires like Mr Sophoclides are bankrolling Labour, the danger is that voters will conclude "they're all at it". As he launches his quest for a "new national moral purpose", Tony Blair may be pondering whether or not reliance on those old Labour warhorses, the unions, was such a bad idea after all.Reuse content