Charity boss hired Carrie after 'failed bid for game reserve cash'

Charity boss hired Carrie after 'failed bid for game reserve cash'

Tory donor Damian Aspinall hired Carrie Johnson for his animal charity after he ‘failed in Government lobbying bid for cash to buy a game reserve’

  • The Prime Minister’s wife began working for the Aspinall Foundation in January
  • FOI revealed it came months after charity lobbied for Government cash 
  • It wanted assistance with bid for site in South Africa costing more than £6million
  • Reserve would include luxury accommodation with outdoor pool and terrace

Carrie Johnson was hired by a prominent wildlife charity after it failed to win Government financial backing to buy a game reserve, it was revealed today.

The Prime Minister’s wife, a former Conservative Party comms chief,  began working for the Aspinall Foundation, run by Tory donor Damian Aspinall, in January.

But a freedom of information request today showed that it came months after Mr Aspinall’s stepbrother Amos Courage, unsuccessfully lobbied Lord Goldsmith to back plans to buy land for conservation in South Africa. 

The foundation wanted to buy 100 square miles of veld, according to information released to the Daily Telegraph. The site would cost £6.6million before animals and would include luxury guest accommodation with an outdoor pool and dining terrace.

Mr Courage emailed the peer in July last year asking ‘if there would be any possibility of a partnership with the UK government or available grants that we could apply for to help us kick-start this ambitious project?’  But his plea was not successful.

Nine months after giving birth to son Wilfred, Mrs Johnson was appointed head of communications for the Aspinall Foundation in January, initially working from the spacious No11 flat she shares with the PM. 

The Prime Minister’s wife, a former Conservative Party comms chief, began working for the Aspinall Foundation, run by Tory donor Damian Aspinall, in January.

A freedom of information request today showed that it came after Mr Aspinall’s stepbrother Amos Courage, unsuccessfully lobbied Lord Goldsmith to back plans to buy land for conservation in South Africa.

Nine months after giving birth to son Wilfred, Mrs Johnson was appointed head of communications for the Aspinall Foundation in January, initially working from the spacious No11 flat she shares with the PM.

Mr Apsinall, a friend of Goldsmith who donated money to him when he was an MP in London, also pressed for financial support for zoos to pay wages last year when they were shut during the lockdown.

Before having Wilfred, she spent two years with the marine conservation group Oceana. She was previously director of communications for the Conservative Party, having earlier worked for Tory MP John Whittingdale and the former chancellor Sajid Javid as a special adviser.

She also worked on Lord Goldsmith’s failed attempt to become London mayor in 2016. 

Boris Johnson’s fiancée took on the job of director of communications – said to have come with a ‘medium to high five-figure’ – to provide the couple with a dual income. 

Mr Apsinall, a friend of Goldsmith who donated money to him  when he was an MP in London, also pressed for financial support for zoos to pay wages last year when they were shut during the lockdown.

According to the FOI the peer wrote to Defra officials in April, not long after the lockdown started, saying: ‘I have been speaking to Damian about the crisis facing our zoos’.

‘My view is that if we are going to bail out the zoos in this way, there should be a greater emphasis from the laggards among them in relation to conservation. They should all be doing much more of the kind of work that Damian is doing.’

A £14million Zoo Support Fund was announced the following May. 

A spokesman for the Aspinall Foundation told the Telegraph it contacted Goldsmith in his capacity as Animal Welfare Minister ”about a potential conservation project which could provide a reserve for elephants and other animals’. 

Speaking in January after hiring the comms professional, Mr Aprinall said: ‘Carrie takes up her role at an exciting time for the foundation and we are delighted to have someone of her calibre on the team.

‘She is a passionate champion for wildlife and conservation, whose energy and expertise will be a huge asset to us.’ 

The following month it was revealed the organisation was being investigated by the Charity Commission.

The probe is examining its ‘financial management and wider governance’ following a Mail investigation into the animal conservation charity, which allows Mr Aspinall to live in a sprawling mansion at below-market rates.

Founded by Mr Aspinall’s father John – a friend of Lord Lucan – the organisation runs a zoo and safari park in Kent as well as conducting conservation work overseas.

The foundation also owns the stately home Howletts House, which Mr Aspinall shares with wife Victoria.

The couple rent the Grade II listed Palladian mansion for just £2,500 a month – while anyone staying in a ‘glamping’ treehouse at the charity’s Port Lympne park are charged more than £400 per night.

Accounts also show that the foundation has paid Mrs Aspinall £62,000 in just two years for ‘interior design services’. The law forbids trustees from benefiting unduly from the charities they are linked to.

Miss Symonds, in her capacity as spokesman for the foundation, said earlier this year: ‘As is the case across the charity sector, the Aspinall Foundation is in regular dialogue with the Charity Commission regarding its governance and associated matters… [it] is fully aware of its legal obligations and remains committed to ensuring best practice compliance.’ 

The rollercoaster history of the Aspinalls 

1956 John Aspinall, who worked as a professional gambler, found inspiration in Nada the Lily by H. Rider Haggard – a book about an illegitimate Zulu prince who lived outside his tribe among wild animals.

He decides to build a garden shed housing a Capuchin monkey, a 9-week-old tigress and two Himalayan bears – with seemingly little regard for the annoyance of his neighbours.

1962 John opens the exclusive Clermont Club – a casino based in Mayfair – which was limited to 600 and included 5 dukes, 5 marquesses and 20 earls.

John Aspinall had been close friends with Lord Lucan and Sir James Goldsmith (pictured)

1970s He uses the proceeds from the Clermont Club to finance the opening of his first zoo at a neo-Palladian mansion – called Howletts – outside Canterbury and begins breeding gorillas with the dream of one day returning them to the wild. 

1972 The entrepreneur sells the Clermont Club and establishes his second park on a 275-acre estate at Port Lympne near Folkestone.   

1984 John sets up the Aspinall Foundation – an animal conservation charity dedicated to protecting animals around the world.

Darren Cockrill, 27, (pictured) dies after being found with multiple injuries

1980 Two members of staff, Brian Stocks and Bob Wilson, were mauled to death within weeks of each other by the same tigress called Zeya. 

1984 Mark Aitken, a 22-year old keeper at Port Lympne, was crushed to death by a bull elephant called Bindu.  

1989 Two-year-old Matthew McDaid has his left arm torn off after approaching the enclosure of a chimp called Bustah in an attempt to stroke it.

1994 Trevor Smith, a keeper at Howletts, was killed when a two-year-old Siberian tiger pounced on him.

1998 The Aspinall charity sets up orphan gorilla project in Gabon. 

February 2000 Darren Cockrill, 27, dies after being found with multiple injuries in the stall of a female Indian elephant at Port Lympne.

June 2000 John Aspinall dies of cancer in Westminster at the age of 74, and his son Damian takes over. He sets about revamping the zoo charity.

2011 The charity returns gibbons to Java.

John Aspinall pictured with Djoum, Britain’s biggest gorilla at the time, who weighed 470lb at his Howletts zoo

2017 Lowland gorillas are returned to the Congo.

2019 The Aspinalls send African painted dogs from Kent to their native homeland of Gabon. They had not roamed the country for 25 years.

January 2020 The charity becomes the most successful in the UK at breeding rare clouded leopards. 

February 2020 The charity becomes the first in the world to send captive bred cheetahs from the UK for re-wilding in South Africa.

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