A gentleman and a player
The life of Stuart Wheeler – as if plotted by Charles Dickens – turned upon the vagaries of chance, of odds overcome, some perplexing contradictions and the narrow margin separating the enjoyment of great wealth with ending-up stony broke.
History distinguishes him as the Conservative party's single greatest benefactor. It was a gift David Cameron thereafter repaid by expelling him from the party when Wheeler also began giving considerably smaller sums to UKIP. The record should also acknowledge what an unusual party donor he was. When, in 2001, he offered his £5 million donation to the Conservatives he made clear to the then leader, William Hague, that it was on the condition he received in reward no honour, direct influence or favour. To many, this was a sign of his political naivety, throwing away his trump card through failing to understand the rules of the game. And it was the one aspect of his request that the party respected to the end.
That end came last week at Chilham Castle, the Jacobean house and gardens in Kent that Wheeler had bought and restored to its former magnificence. It could scarcely have been further removed from his first home, an orphanage.
One day in 1936, when the boy was a one-year old with a club foot, his orphanage was visited by Betty Wheeler and her sister, Vera (Alec, Betty's war hero husband, "whose definition of 'busy' was eccentric" had calculated that he could not spare the time). Even on this occasion, chance intervened. Betty Wheeler had been drawn to a better-looking child when her sister noticed – perceptively – that the spirited boy making a nuisance of himself "might be more interesting in the long run." His first break.
With this rescue began an experience of how luck could turn in either direction. His adoptive parents' wealth dwindled with Alec Wheeler's death when Stuart was only eight, and what was to have been a comfortable childhood rapidly degenerated into one of straightened circumstances. His mother had to take-in paying guests to make ends' meet. It was thus a home life considerably less privileged than enjoyed by most the boys who bullied him after he arrived at Eton – to which he had won a place at the last moment. It was primarily through his academic ability that he overcame a miserable first few years there, ending-up as both captain of his house and of Oppidans.
Eton provided him with social connections and Oxford gave him many of the friends he was to keep for the rest of his life, including one who was to become a strong influence on his later Euroscepticism, Rodney Leach.
Wheeler was personable instead of gregarious, deeply loyal rather than indiscriminately charming. Thus, the first of his major contradictions: his passion for gambling – particularly poker, blackjack, bridge and backgammon – plunged him into a world where an otherwise agreeable evening with friends at a club could end in ruin. Debts were expected to be paid, regardless of the loser's circumstances or amiableness. Almost any subject, including personal tragedy, was considered fair game for a wager.
Wheeler gambled because – gifted with an excellent mathematical mind – he was good at it, but also because he enjoyed it. Operating a roulette wheel whilst at Oxford, he nevertheless sought out the opinion of clergymen to guide him on whether winning money from people without giving them anything in return was un-Christian. But instead of theology, he received only practical advice on why it was not conducive to family life (it transpired that in Wheeler's case the two did happily coexist).
The passion for placing bets continued whilst he trained to be a barrister – even although until 1960 private organised gambling was, at best, a legal grey area. During the 1960s and 70s, Wheeler became a regular at Crockford's, playing bridge at the Ladbroke Club and Portland Club and backgammon at the Clermont. There, he mixed with the alternatingly charming and ruthless John Aspinall, the financier Jim Slater and Lord Lucan. Wheeler saw the latter only a couple of nights before his disappearance "occasionally throwing good-humoured advice in my direction, and doing a very good impression of a man with a completely untroubled mind."
His first years after National Service (where a stray bullet on the firing range took out his top lip and was millimetres away from taking him out entirely) and Oxford were marked by relative professional failure. Having given-up practicing as a barrister, Wheeler also felt he was not a success as a merchant banker. Gambling was not only his constant release but, especially after he lost his job, at times his primary source of income – a deeply precarious position to find himself in given the high stakes with which his friends and associates played.
One of those high rollers was Jimmy Goldsmith, who in 1978 at Aspinall's club almost ruined Wheeler on the toss of a coin. But despite his loss, he considered that he had ended the evening one-up – as it was also his first date with the photographer, Tessa Codrington, whom a year later he married. They lived happily ever after until her death in 2016, along with their three daughters.
"I love the opportunity to play blackjack twenty-four hours a day" he admitted in his engagingly-written memoirs, Winning Against the Odds. His love affair with Las Vegas had begun early, in 1964, after he learned about card counting and other ways to improve his chances from Edward O. Thorp, an MIT professor of probability theory and author of Beat the Dealer. Conscious of the personal risk incurred by a prolonged winning spell in the Mafia-run casinos of the Sixties' Vegas, Wheeler would move regularly from one casino to another and not have a drink until he was done. Eventually, a successful evening at Caesars Palace was abruptly halted by the pit boss who summoned him over and said, "you're not losing. We don't care for that type of play here: just cash in your chips and collect your cheque." The experience never dented his enthusiasm for gambling or for Vegas. During the 1980s he played in the World Series of Poker.
But it was a different form of gambling that proved to be the route to Wheeler's wealth and business acumen. Although spread-betting already existed, albeit in a minor way, it was Wheeler's identification of the opportunity to apply it to commodities trading that led to his building a business that would transform the industry and, in the process, ultimately become a FTSE 250 company offering a wide range of trading in financial derivatives.
In the Britain of Harold Wilson and Edward Heath, exchange controls greatly restricted the ability of speculators to cheaply move their money across borders. In the early 1970s, with inflation spiralling, the price of gold appreciated. But Treasury and Bank controls ensured that the only way British citizens could buy it was through purchasing investment dollars at such a premium as to likely negate worthwhile gains. With a business partner, Tommy Richter, Wheeler spotted an opportunity.
The impediments to buying gold were prohibitive to the point of pointlessness, but no such regulations curtailed betting on its future price movement. In 1974, Richter and Wheeler founded IG Index (the "IG" stood for "Investors in Gold"). It was, in effect, a bookmaker that allowed spread-betting initially on the gold price and thereafter across a wide range of commodities. A strong inducement was that the profits their clients made through spread-betting on price volatility were tax free (unlike other investments).
IG Index's ability to hedge was made possible with the assistance of Mocatta & Goldsmid, the only member of the London Gold Market that would condescend to deal with them. That Jock Mocatta and Harry d'Avigdor-Goldsmid were prepared to open this lifeline may have been at least partly attributable to their both also being members of Wheeler's bridge club – an example of a restrictive market being breached by a social network. In d'Avigdor-Goldsmid in particular, Wheeler saw the beau ideal of how a rich man should live – a fount of hospitality, good living, good talk and good cheer.
Spread-betting on the price of gold was Wheeler's inspired idea. And it was an instant flop. Wheeler wrongly predicted that the relaxation of American controls would send the gold price soaring. Despite working his personal connections as best he could, there were few takers for this unfamiliar form of betting. After nine months, Richter cut his losses and, without any ill-feelings, left Wheeler to soldier-on alone.
Wheeler spent 1975 unable to draw an income, surviving only on what he could win at the bridge table. As he later recounted, "once a week I would calculate exactly where I was financially, and try to see if I could stay afloat for the next seven days." A lucky win at the Portland Club one evening was all that prevented him from going under.
Yet, the hand-to-mouth existence in a tiny office on a top floor in Clapham at least suited Wheeler temperamentally for he was not really a corporate animal. "I had always been at sea in large outfits" he subsequently explained, whereas with only a tiny, but loyal, staff crowded into his attic office "I found even the most alarming episodes, when the very future of the firm looked under threat, less worrying than those moments at Hill Samuel when I had to ask a secretary, very diffidently, whether she might have a spare minute to do my typing for me."
In 1983, nine years after commencing operations, IG Index bought its first computer. It was a shrewd investment. Over the succeeding fifteen years the company expanded rapidly, buying Ladbrokes Sporting Spreads and William Hill Index and leading with innovation. It became the first company to launch an online dealing platform for financial spread-betting and (in 1995) the first to offer bets on the prices of individual shares. By the time the company listed on the London Stock Exchange as IG Group plc in 2000, Wheeler was able to cash-in his chips for around £90 million. In the meantime, he had transformed the industry. Ironically, it was one prediction he miscalled – if he had waited longer he would have made considerably more.
But he now had more time to enjoy his happy family life at Chilham Castle, and also to think deeply about the good his money could inspire. Although his interest in politics had never been obsessive, he was concerned that following Tony Blair's 1997 landslide, the Conservative Party was so strapped for cash that whilst Blair was soliciting multi-million donations, the Tories were no longer even able to pay for the travel fare for one of their (dwindling number of) Scottish members to attend an important meeting in London.
Thus in 2001 it was with a desire to help the political underdog – not a gambler's colossal miscalculation of future gain – that Wheeler offered the Conservatives a record-breaking £5 million. When assured by Wheeler that he wanted nothing for it and would refuse any honour offered, the party leader William Hague broke into a grin, admitting that "this is rather like a visit from Father Christmas." Wheeler's wife promptly phoned their daughter, Jacquetta, to break the news. "Darling, we have to face facts" she advised, "we are now the wife and daughter of a madman."
Wheeler's politics might be compared to that of a Victorian Nonconformist with a gambling habit. Unsurprisingly, he was a believer in free markets and was broadly in favour of a smaller state that spent money wisely rather than with abandon. He helped think tanks including Policy Exchange, the Adam Smith Institute, the Centre for Policy Studies, Politea and the Institute of Economic Affairs that shared that outlook. He enjoyed turning up to even minor think tank events to listen to the debate (and think tank organisers were always delighted to welcome their multi-millionaire guest). But he lacked the ideological fervour of the more relentless laissez-faire dogmatist. If he had a fault it was perhaps a boyish desire to stir things up a bit and create some turbulence. In this he succeeded.
Whilst he will be remembered as a treasurer to UKIP and one of the treasurers of the Vote Leave campaign, the UK's leaving the European Union was the finale of his later years, not the recurring melody of his life. More enduring was his commitment to human rights and civil liberties. In particular, he was a convinced opponent of torture. Among the causes to which he was a generous donor were Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Prisoners Abroad and Reprieve. He was especially outraged by torture and was horrified by Guantanamo Bay and forced rendition.
Many politicians who got to know Wheeler spotted that he was not a natural politician himself. Perhaps no clearer example of this could be seen in his one attempt to be elected one.
Wheeler's insistence on propriety in public life was shaken by the Westminster expenses scandal and especially by what he saw as the playing of the expenses system for personal (but legal) financial gain by Greg Barker, the Conservative MP and close friend of David Cameron. Forming the Trust Party for the 2010 general election, Wheeler took it upon himself to restore faith in politics – a tough ask given that the Party fielded only two candidates, with Wheeler standing against Barker in Bexhill and Battle. Standing, indeed, proved a problem, given that Wheeler was awaiting a hip operation that made it painful for him to go on walkabout. He hobbled on, all the same, his 2,699 votes scarcely troubling the victor. For his part, Barker stood down five years later to accept a peerage and become a business associate of the Russian oligarch, Oleg Deripaska.
Whilst Wheeler's battle for Battle was a historical footnote, his wider financial impact on British politics needs to be considered. His donation to Hague's Conservatives certainly demonstrated that, of itself, money does not buy votes (the Tories duly made only one net gain in the 2001 general election). But he had provided a much needed financial lifeline at a time when seasoned political commentators were beginning to question whether the "collapse of a stout party" might ultimately prove terminal.
Wheeler had liked Hague but failed to develop a rapport with his successor, Iain Duncan Smith, whom he concluded had no hope of winning a general election. When that conclusion began to be shared by a quorum of the shadow cabinet, IDS was pressured into resigning. The critical verdict delivered about him by Wheeler on the Today programme did not, of itself, bring-on the crisis, but the news that even the Party's biggest donor was openly articulating his lack of confidence in its leader was a part of the process that concentrated senior Tory minds.
In the long view, at least as significant was Wheeler's support for eurosceptic causes. His close friend was Rodney Leach whose Business for Sterling (thereafter Open Europe) still advocated tilting the debate from within the Conservative party. However, Wheeler saw no inconsistency in also seeing whether pressure from a rival outside force could push the Tories in the right direction. This informed his decision to support UKIP in European elections and to give Nigel Farage's party a £100,000 donation. On the one hand, this was not a transformative sum (it roughly covered the cost of fighting a couple of by-elections properly) but for a cash-strapped party like UKIP it was unquestionably a major coup.
The appeal of these outsiders to a supposed Establishment figure like Wheeler was not hard to fathom. "In his heart he was a rebel, he was a privateer not a ship of the line and he saw in Nigel something similar" maintains Gawain Towler, UKIP's then director of communications. What was more, "through his support and his dinners, he was the entrée to a whole series of serious money figures who were sympathetic to the cause. He was the key that unlocked a lot of financial and moral support from people who were credible and serious and could not just be dismissed as a bunch of cranks."
It was in this accurate expectation that he would be a motivator to other donors that Wheeler was made treasurer of UKIP on the same day that he joined it, in January 2011. Drawn between portraying themselves as rebels and a Tory squire's view of what England should be, UKIP could now claim that it had captured a castle.
From his castle, Wheeler continued to see political parties as a means to achieving objectives rather than as institutional ends in themselves. He had not been especially perturbed by David Cameron's annulment of his Conservative Party membership. He lost neither friends through it nor endured any strain at home (his beloved wife was a Liberal Democrat voter who admired Paddy Ashdown).
As early as 2006, he had concluded that hopes that Cameron might be the man to fundamentally renegotiate Britain's relationship with the EU were misplaced. Here, after all, was a Tory leader who instructed his party to stop "banging on about Europe," who reneged on a promise to hold a referendum on the Lisbon treaty and who in 2008 appointed Kenneth Clarke as his shadow business minister.
But Wheeler did calculate that fear of UKIP taking Tory votes was more likely to scare Cameron than friendly in-house persuasion. This is the sense in which his role with UKIP proved important. In 2013, Cameron conceded the principle of an In/Out referendum, which then became a manifesto commitment in 2015 (expecting a renewed coalition with Nick Clegg, Cameron had grounds for miscalculating that it was a commitment he could then safely junk after the general election votes were counted).
The final phase of Wheeler's contribution to the saga of recent times came in the months leading up to and during the 2016 EU referendum. He had already got to know Matthew Elliott, whose Taxpayers' Alliance he had helped support and he also backed the recruitment of Dominic Cummings. Indeed, Wheeler regarded the telephone encouragement he gave to Cummings to get on board – and his sticking with him when others were thereafter keen to be rid of his abrasive ways – as perhaps his greatest contribution to the Brexit cause.
In January 2016, when the details of how a referendum would be fought remained hazy (this was before Cameron's failed "renegotiation" convinced moderate Eurosceptics to switch from reform from within to do-or-die Brexit) Wheeler hosted several of the leading players at Chilham where a wide range of options were discussed. "Not least because he did not take a leadership role he was able to draw people together" suggests Matthew Elliott. "He was a convener."
Although he had ceased to be UKIP's treasurer, he was at that stage still a party member. It was therefore significant that rather than back the Leave.EU alternative of Nigel Farage and Aaron Banks he threw his weight behind the official Vote Leave campaign run by Elliott and Cummings. Increasing deafness led him to volunteer to stand down as a Vote Leave board member before the campaign reached its peak, but as one of the co-treasurers of the organisation he had already played an important role in drumming-up the finances that sustained the campaign against its Remain adversary whose cause enjoyed the additional benefit of an official government £9.3 million taxpayer funded nationwide mailshot warning about the dangers of Brexit.
After the result was declared and Cameron resigned, Wheeler was among the Leave protagonists aghast to discover it was not all over after all. His disappointment at Theresa May's "Brexit In Name Only" machinations encouraged him to keep giving to Eurosceptic causes, including Brexit Central. Not all his fire was directed at the wrecking tactics of continuity Remainers. He became especially disillusioned with UKIP under its successive leaders and especially under Gerard Batten. In 2018, Wheeler concluded that UKIP had degenerated into "an explicitly racist party" and he resigned from it. Whatever his supposed amateurism as a politician, be brought to it the same quality that had kept him honest throughout his decades in the sharp practice world of placing bets. To the end, Wheeler kept his integrity, an asset value that endures without regard to what it surrounds.
"People will always see Stuart as being the Brexiteer who gave £5 million to William Hague's Conservatives and then left to join UKIP to help spur it and then Vote Leave on" Matthew Elliott believes. "But if you spent time with him you appreciated what he was really most interested in was human rights and civil liberties. That was an even bigger drive and passion for him than Brexit."
"There was in him the wild streak with his gambling which co-existed with a strong family and strong business interests," Elliott concludes, "but also once he had made his money he fully lived the importance of giving back to the causes he believed in. Stuart Wheeler exemplified the very well-rounded life."
This article is by by Graham Stewart and it first appeared in The Critic