If a man is known by the company he keeps, what to make of the many men and women in London who provide professional services to the residents of the less salubrious quarters of the world, the oligarchs and kleptocrats who come for corners of the earth where the rule of law is a theory more than a practice?
Reframing the question, does everyone have a price? It would appear so. If enough money is there to be made, the ends appear to justify the means of acquiring it. Are you an oligarch in need of PR? How about some accounting advice on how to conceal your wealth? Or perhaps the need is for some ‘corporate intelligence’ on one of your rivals? Whatever the need, the operators in professional services capitals like London are there to provide it.
But it’s a business model that invites risk. The Daily Mail recently cited the case of one Andrew Wordsworth, a distant relative of the famous Romantic poet, who was detained at the Bristol airport and quizzed over his links to Vladimir Putin. Wordsworth, founder of the corporate intelligence firm Raedas, was released without charge and confirmed to the Daily Mail that his firm had cut their work in Russia following its invasion of Ukraine, saying Raedas had “immediately refocused the business away from Russia leaving clients and revenue streams”. In other words, they were happy to take the money until it was no longer acceptable to take it anymore.
The Mail framed Wordsworth’s detention as part of a wider crackdown by Britain’s security services on corporate intelligence firms accused of “helping oligarchs or organisations allied to the Kremlin”. As the Mail notes, the Raedas website does declare that the firm was ‘engaged in many of the last decade’s most prominent disputes connected to Russia’. Live by the sword, die by the sword, etc.
For their part, sources ‘close to Wordsworth’ believe the Raedas founder was stitched up by a rival firm, which shows you the length the rats will go to as they fight in the sack. Again, anything to get the money. And while it might be true Raedas was done by its rivals, it’s hard to see the Home Office acting exclusively on a rival’s say-so. Where there is smoke, there is usually a good chance of fire.
This isn’t to single out Raedas, by the way, which is the top-rated firm in Chambers & Partners listing of corporate intelligence firms. They all do it. Indeed, litigious oligarchs and klepto-states represent a rich vein of revenue. If London’s firms didn’t do the work, somebody else probably would, such is our global world.
More to the point, the British government doesn’t appear to be bothered by this activity in its backyard. Notwithstanding the Home Office’s enquiry into Wordsworth/Raedas, it doesn’t look like any reckoning is coming for the corporate intelligence industry as a whole or any of the other professional services offered to this dubious cohort of clientele. As another outlet reported, Wordsworth has continued to maintain good relations with former client Alexander Ledbedev, a one-time KGB spy whose son Evgeny, owner of London’s Evening Standard, was made a Lord by former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, reportedly over the objections of the UK security service. This is the same Evgeny Ledbedev, you’ll recall, who hosted Johnson at his Italian mansion when the latter was Foreign Secretary, with Johnson attending the party sans his security detail.
All this to say, the British state and British regulators still appear ‘extremely relaxed’ about British businesses making money servicing the shadows of business and finance. With the country’s economy struggling, the current Conservative government is unlikely to strangle any economic activity.
And if that means the country acquiring some fleas by laying down with dogs, then so be it.