Dominic Raab has been roundly criticised after an openDemocracy investigation found that a meeting between the Tory prime ministerial hopeful and a lobbyist from a controversial think tank, the Institute of Economic Affairs, was not recorded in official transparency data.
The IEA, which does not disclose its funders, has previously come under fire for boasting that it could side-step transparency rules requiring ministers to declare meetings with lobbyists.
In May 2018, Raab, then a housing minister, and his treasury counterpart Liz Truss met with trade lobbyist Shanker Singham. Then in August, Truss had lunch with the think tank’s director, Mark Littlewood, at the Reform Club in London. None of these meetings were included on government transparency releases.
The Treasury said that the meetings with the IEA were “political” and so did not have to be disclosed. Previously other government departments have refused to disclose details of meetings to openDemocracy claiming they were “not ministerial business”.
Raab, a long-standing IEA supporter, was made Brexit secretary by prime minister Theresa May in July 2018.
Opposition politicians have accused ministers of taking advantage of loopholes in transparency rules to avoid scrutiny of meetings with Brexit lobbyists and influencers.
“There was a time when a Tory prime minister claimed his government would be the most transparent ever. Now Tory ministers duck and dive, using every device to hide their contacts with key influencers,” said Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake in reaction to openDemocracy’s latest findings..
Brexit influencing game
The IEA is one of the most influential libertarian think tanks in British politics, with strong links to the right of the Conservative party.
The think tank has taken money from controversial business lobbies including the tobacco and gambling industries. Last year, the Charity Commission issued the IEA with a formal warning over a pro-Brexit report written by Singham.
Singham has emerged as an influential figure in the powerful pro-Brexit lobby group of MPs fronted by Jacob-Rees Mogg, the European Research Group. Widely credited as the author of the so-called ‘Mathouse Compromise’ on Brexit, Singham was included in high-level Cabinet Office discussions about the Irish border earlier this year.
The former US lobbyist – who has welcomed the prospect of a free trade deal with a Trump White House – has met with Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and numerous other senior cabinet figures. Last year, Buzzfeed revealed that Singham was having frequent meetings with then Brexit minister Steve Baker that were not declared in transparency returns.
IEA director Mark Littlewood was previously filmed apparently boasting to an undercover journalist from Greenpeace’s investigative unit Unearthed that his outfit was involved in the “Brexit-influencing game” and had access to government ministers. Littlewood said that he could avoid having to record Singham’s presence at meetings on official data by using his name, instead of Singham’s, on government transparency registers.
IEA staff regularly appear billed as ‘independent’ experts in the British media. Last year, the IEA was accused of pushing “paid-for propaganda” after openDemocracy found its free schools magazine had carried articles arguing against tobacco taxes and climate change science, and in favour of NHS privatisation.
As well as their meeting with Singham, in June 2018 Raab and Truss attended the lobbyists’s ‘Special Trade Commission/Advisory Board’, according to emails released under Freedom of Information legislation.
The Treasury told openDemocracy that this advisory council was convened by Singham and was not connected to government. The department did not provide any other details about the council or its activities. Singham has yet to respond to questions about the role and workings of this council.
Raab has been particularly close to the IEA. In 2012, Raab, Truss and a handful of other young Conservative MPs penned Britannia Unchained which declared that British workers are “among the worst idlers”. Raab later said, “it was the IEA which supported us in waging the war of ideas and launching that book.”
Speaking at the think tank’s 60th birthday celebrations in 2015 (see video below), Raab outlined how crucial the IEA had been to his thinking, and to giving him and his ideas a platform.
In his speech, Raab talked about swimming on a beach in Brazil and emerging from the water only to discover that the current had quietly moved him hundreds of metres along the shore. The IEA operates similarly, he said, quietly moving British politics to the right, without anyone noticing.
Commenting on openDemocracy’s findings Scottish National Party MP Martin Docherty-Hughes said:
"In a Tory leadership race populated mainly by hypocrites and fantasists, it’s saying something that Dominic Raab is the most out-there candidate of the lot. Accepting the role of Brexit Secretary to pursue a strategy he clearly didn't agree with, solely to burnish his leadership credentials, is a supremely cynical act which renders him entirely unsuitable for such high political office – and these documents only underline that.
“Think tanks like the IEA have hijacked the anger around the UK's democratic deficit that caused Brexit to pursue their libertarian agenda, and it is chancers like Raab who are facilitating this sleight of hand – the system is rotten."
Steve Goodrich, research manager at Transparency International, said: “Ministers will be well aware that any discussions they have about official business with lobbyists must be made publicly available in the interests of transparency and accountability.
“When they attend such engagements in a private or party political capacity, which are not subject to disclosure, it is difficult for the outside observer to understand what’s really going on and whether there has been a breach of the ministerial code.”
An IEA spokesperson: “The role of a think tank is to present and promote different ideas. Because of the quality of our research we are regularly asked by policymakers of all kinds from all parties for our thoughts and advice on relevant subject areas.
“Our Director General and other IEA representatives will happily meet with any ministers, MPs, policymakers and stakeholders of all stripes and persuasions, who wish to hear our ideas.”