Election '97: Dealer who strove to shine with PM

Christian Wolmar on links between John Major, a diamond merchant and Tory party funds
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The Independent Online
Willie Nagel is a multi-millionaire diamond broker in his seventies who, according to acquaintances, does not mix very well with other people but desperately wants to be accepted by the establishment.

Letters leaked to the Independent show that Mr Nagel first met John Major through his Huntingdon Constituency agent, Peter Brown, with whom he had dinner in 1991.

The following year, he arranged tickets for Wimbledon Finals Day for Mr Brown and his wife Antonia. Mr Brown thanked him and confirmed his "very generous offer of sponsorship of pounds 5,000 each on the occasion of the Opera and Concert Evening on 25 July and our Victory Ball on 13 November". The Huntingdon Conservative Association then invoiced Mr Nagel for pounds 10,000 for "advertising in brochures".

After another lunch with Mr Brown, Mr Nagel wrote to Mr Major's agent on 23 October 1992 enclosing promotional material on a pilotless aircraft developed by Israeli Aircraft Industries. The letter said: "As discussed over lunch, I am sending the relevant material regarding what is considered the best protection for troops in any fighting zone in the world. It is believed that the situation in Bosnia warrants such a purchase and it is for this reason that I am enclosing the main details. I sincerely hope that you will be able to activate it."

Mr Brown then wrote to Mr Major at Downing Street with information on the "combat-proven UAV" system. He told the Prime Minister : "I'm not suggesting that any action could be taken upon this but I wonder whether you might pass the information on to any department concerned with such equipment, since it may be of interest to them".

Mr Nagel later sent Mr Brown a magnum of J&B Sarcey champagne to celebrate the New Year in 1993, which Mr Brown said he would drink "when there is more to celebrate".

In May 1993 Mr Nagel wrote to Mr Major at the constituency headquarters trying to interest the Prime Minister in having lunch with a friend who could have been useful to the party and concluded by saying: "I am taking the liberty of writing to you directly to Huntingdon and via Peter who, naturally, is the only person who is aware of it all".

Mr Brown wrote to Mr Nagel in January 1994 after another meeting and saying that "I will, of course, discuss with the PM the points you raised on the next appropriate occasion but I really want to say thank you for once again offering such generous support to the Conservative Party in Huntingdon". In March 1993 and April 1994, there are further invoices of pounds 5,000 from the association to Mr Nagel for "political briefings and information". Mr Nagel also agreed to sponsor the Conservative Agents' Journal with an advertisement costing pounds 800 for his lobbying firm, Punchline.

However, during 1994 the relationship between Mr Nagel and the Conservatives in Huntingdon appears to sour. Mr Nagel telephoned the Prime Minister at home. This apparently led to a complaint to Mr Nagel, who then wrote to Arabella Warburton, the Mr Major's diary secretary, to "correct any possible misunderstandings". He had not understood that "the PM himself had requested that I should only call at No 10. Had I realised this, obviously I would not have gone against his wishes". He assured Ms Warburton that "there is no need to change the PM's telephone number at home because of my actions, as indeed I am not a "telephone trespasser". Mr Nagel then wrote to Mr Major explaining why he phoned him at home. He said he wanted to warn the Prime Minister that Andrew Stone, "a very able new managing director of Marks and Spencer" had asked Mr Nagel to arrange a private lunch with Tony Blair and out of loyalty to the Conservative cause he wanted Mr Major to know.

Mr Nagel also appeared hurt that Mr Major had sent a formal refusal to an invitation to his daughter's wedding: "This seemed totally out of character with your normal warm and personal style to which, I had become accustomed".

By this time, Mr Brown seemed to become worried about the relationship. A lengthy briefing note from the Huntingdon association to Mr Major on 5 August, headed "Willie Nagel", said: "I think we need to address this problem to the benefit of us all. Quite clearly, the situation is getting rather heated".

The note said: "There is no doubt that there is an element of self-interest in WN's wish to be closely associated with us. He has a network of friends, some of whom could be very important to the party. They include diplomats, industrialists and prominent members of the Jewish community. Not withstanding his eagerness to let it be known that he has made your acquaintance, many of his contacts are highly influential".

It continued: "WN was tremendously helpful in talking to Lord Rothermere during the period when Simon Heffer was doing his worst for you ... There is a down side of which we are all aware. His persistence along with his ability never to take no for an answer is wearing in the extreme, which is part of the cause of the relationship souring."

However, the relationship clearly improved, as on 28 November, Mr Nagel, in a letter to Mr Major, acknowledges receipt of "your friendly letter of 22 November" and went on to remark on "cool-headedness and your ability to come to the heart of any problem, which are the essential ingredients of a great man".

Mr Nagel also talked about the forthcoming visit to Israel by the Prime Minister: "I am pleased to hear that you are ready to consider a visit to the Diamond Exchange" [where Mr Nagel's Israel headquarters are located]. He was hopeful that the programme "will include me". In fact, Mr Nagel was invited on the trade mission in March 1995, which included a meeting with the then prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin.

In the tour brochure, Mr Major talked about "the presence of such a distinguished group of senior British businessmen". Indeed, most of the group of 28 businessmen were chairmen or senior executives of quoted companies such as Lord Young (Cable and Wireless), Richard Giordano (British Gas), Sir Robert Clarke (United Biscuits), Sir Richard Greenbury (Marks & Spencer), Sir Christopher Hogg (Reuters), Martin Laing (John Laing), Sir Sidney Lipworth (National Westminster) and Lord Sterling (P&O). However, the Diamond Exchange was not on the itinerary.

Mr Nagel still manages to remain in Conservative circles. In December he attended a Conservative Friends of Israel dinner at which Mr Major was present and both men were also at a Huntingdon Foundation Dinner organised a couple of months ago.