The shadowy past of Labour's 'dodgy donor'

His name will now forever be associated with Labour party sleaze, but who excactly is David Abrahams? We profile the man described as 'good at business but a bit bonkers' who has been known to invent a wife and child

For a man supposedly obsessed with privacy, David Abrahams has a good deal to say for himself.

When allegations of his undercover donations to the Labour Party some £650,000, via four different proxies at the last count surfaced last weekend, he came out fighting.

"I feel as though I'm a criminal," he told the BBC. "Why should I be harassed and harried?" Why indeed, apart from the fact that his actions were a prima-facie breach of electoral law.

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In fact, the more we learn about Abrahams, the worse it seems to get, says the Daily Mail. In the course of a career stretching back at least 30 years (he claims to be 53, but was in fact born in 1944), Labour's "dodgy donor" has left "a trail of false names and ages, a sham wife and child, outraged revenue officers, frustrated bailiffs, court judgments and political chicanery".

"Anywhere else, perhaps, Abrahams would have taken a fall long ago." But in Newcastle, where his father Bennie was an established Labour elder statesman, he seemed "untouchable". Abrahams senior combined political ambition with a successful career in property, says The Guardian. His son David was keen to follow suit, twice attempting to stand for Parliament. He became a councillor for Tyne and Wear, waging high-profile campaigns in support of local pensioners and against racism.

From the 1970s, he also ran and grew the family's property interests, setting up a string of development firms under the name of David Martin. Abrahams claimed his father told him to adopt the pseudonym because he "didn't want him to cash in on the family name", said the Newcastle Evening Chronicle in 2001.

But there were clear political advantages too. Abrahams (trading as David Martin) faced a crown court trial in 1992 for illegal eviction, shortly after being selected to contest William Hague's Yorkshire seat in the forthcoming election. He was cleared of the charge, but when reporters put it to him that he was using two names to draw wool over voters' eyes, he sought a High Court injunction preventing publication.

Abrahams' cover had been temporarily blown, but he went on to run his dual persona so effectively that business associates "who knew him as David Martin were surprised when they saw his picture in the national press under another name", says the FT. Political colleagues too said they had no idea "he had that sort of wealth". But few doubted his "Walter Mitty" tendencies, says The Independent, particularly after his de-selection as a Labour candidate in 1992, "when it emerged that he had invented the existence of a wife and son" to boost his chances.

Abrahams is in fact a confirmed bachelor. He runs his businesses from the old family home in Gosforth, a Newcastle suburb, and avoids any conspicuous display of wealth. Neighbours say a "knackered old Volvo" is an almost permanent fixture on the front drive, while building work on the house has been going on "for years and years".

He's an enigma certainly, concludes the Daily Mail. But, in recent days, Abrahams seems to have discovered a new willingness to spill the beans about his political links popping up on Newsnight, to the evident surprise of Jeremy Paxman. There could be no better reminder for Labour that he remains a ticking bomb. "Good at business but a bit bonkers," is the pithy assessment of Labour colleagues in the North East region. Expect to hear that line repeated a good deal more over the coming weeks.

The endemic sleaze in the Labour party

The revelations about Abraham's political donations have done little to shed light on his businesses. But details are emerging. The Daily Telegraph reports that his six firms registered at Companies House have listed assets of just £144,000, and there's no doubt he's had his ups and downs. In the 1990s, he was embroiled with a former partner (a dentist) in a dispute with the Allied Irish Bank over £3m in mortgage defaults, which went to the House of Lords.

The deal likely to attract most attention, says The Independent, is his interest in building a business park in Durham. He has threatened to sue anyone linking his donations with a planning application, refused by local planners then approved after intervention from Douglas Alexander's transport department. But, as Simon Jenkins notes in The Guardian, there will always be some insisting that "owt is never done for nowt".

As usual with such scandals, questions centre on who knew what and when. Why did Harriet Harman accept £5,000 for her deputy leadership campaign, when Hilary Benn (tipped off by Baroness Jay) refused one? And why did Gordon Brown's chief fundraiser, Jon Mendelsohn, send Abrahams a letter this week thanking him for years of support?

One thing is clear, says the Daily Mail, the scandal comes "at a woeful time" for the PM. "Perhaps it was too much to hope that Gordon Brown could clear the Augean stables of Labour sleaze so soon after his arrival at No.10. But how deeply depressing, with the stench of the loans-for-honours affair still lingering, to be confronted with this new evidence of the corruption still clearly endemic in the Labour Party."