Dark Money Investigations

The new Brexit minister, the arms industry, the American hard right… and Equatorial Guinea

Steve Baker, the new Brexit minister, has taken cash from the shady Constitutional Research Council… and a whole lot of other people too.

Adam Ramsay Peter Geoghegan
Adam Ramsay Peter Geoghegan
1 July 2017
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Steve Baker MP, fair use

Steve Baker, the new Brexit minister, accepted a donation from the shadowy Constitutional Research Council, the same group that channelled a mystery £435,000 to the DUP to campaign for Brexit.

And today, openDemocracy can reveal that Baker has also taken money from an arms company while promoting the aerospace industry in parliament; accepted travel costs from the government of Equatorial Guinea before writing a report dismissing concerns about their human rights abuses; and accepted conference expenses from radical right wing American groups with links to Robert Mercer and the Koch brothers.

Baker, the MP for Wycombe since 2010, is a new minister in the department for exiting the EU, and has declared in his register of interests that a donation of £6,500 from the secretive Constitutional Research Council paid for a conference of the Eurosceptic “European Research Group”. Before his appointment to the department, Mr Baker was chair of this group of right-wing Tory MPs. The money was used “to fund hospitality for ERG members and their staff at an event on 19 December 2016.”

While it is yet to be established where the Constitutional Research Council (CRC) gets its money from, openDemocracy has previously revealed that its chair, the Scottish Tory Richard Cook, set up a business in 2013 with Prince Nawwaf bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, a very senior Saudi prince, and former head of the Saudi Arabian intelligence agency, and with Peter Haestrup, a Danish man wanted by the Indian prosecution service over his alleged role in smuggling Kalashnikovs to a Hindu group in West Bengal in 1995.

So, who is Steve Baker, the new parliamentary under-secretary of state for exiting the European Union? As a new Brexit minister, he will play a key role in negotiations which will impact on the lives of everyone in the UK. And yet, as our investigations have shown, he has serious questions to answer about his relationship with numerous powerful interest groups across the planet.

He was paid thousands by the arms industry, and helped run the group of MPs ‘promoting’ the arms industry

Steve Baker is a former engineer in the RAF, and was vice-chair of the All Party Group on Aerospace, whose aim is to “To promote awareness of all aspects of the British aerospace sector in parliament and government.”

But Baker’s financial interest in the arms industry continued after he was elected in 2010. Between 11th June and 29th November 2013, he was a non-executive director of the Royston based Aerospace company Thermal Engineering Ltd. He records that his consultancy – owned by him and his wife, who is a medical doctor – was paid at a rate of £18,000 a year for 2 days’ work a month. Thermal Engineering was bought out in December 2013, when his role appears to have ended, at which point he had been paid £9,000, and registered a further, one-off payment of £3,000.

Thermal Engineering, which calls itself “a leading aerospace components manufacturer”, list their clients as including a range of arms companies, such as Rolls Royce, who supply arms to Saudi Arabia, the French Aerospace and security firm Safran, who also have close links to Saudi Arabia; the French firm ITP, who have links to Saudi Arabia; GKN Aerospace, who are certified to work in Saudi Arabia; MTU Aero Engines, who have worked in Saudi Arabia; Bombardier, who work in Saudi Arabia; Airbus who work in Saudi Arabia; GE aviation, who boast that “More than 1,100 GE jet engines serve the Saudi aviation industry for both commercial and military use”; and BAE Systems who supply arms to Saudi Arabia. British arms companies have been condemned for supplying arms to the Saudi regime in the middle of its brutal bombing campaign against Yemen.

Baker also spoke last year at a conference hosted by the arms company Raytheon, in his role as vice-chair of the all party group. There is no evidence that he was also pitching for work for his consultancy.  

Commenting on openDemocracy’s revelation that Steve Baker was vice-chair of the parliamentary group which ‘promotes’ the arms trade in parliament, and has also taken thousands of pounds from the arms trade, Andrew Smith of Campaign Against Arms Trade said:

“It's a totally inappropriate appointment. When used well, all-parliamentary groups can provide a valuable space for parliamentarians to ask questions and inform policy. Arms dealers already have far too loud a voice in the corridors of power. MPs should do all they can to scrutinise and regulate controversial industries like the arms trade, not profit from them.

“Many of the companies that Baker’s company did business with have armed brutal and repressive regimes around the world, and the consequences have been deadly. Their equipment has played a key role in the destruction of Yemen."

This isn’t the only example of surprising links between Baker’s supplementary income and his work as an MP. In 2014 he made £5-10k from Walbrook Economics for “analysis of and insight into public economic policy”. The same year, he was elected to the Treasury Select Committee, which oversees government spending. Walbrook claims to specialise “in applying macroeconomic and political research to the investment and corporate sphere” and say that they “take the long and often non consensus view without fear of conflict of interest”. Its clients include the “corporate, institutional, wealth management” sectors.

Palling around with homophobes… and Robert Mercer...

Baker’s register of interests also shows that he has been funded by controversial right wing groups in the USA to attend a number of conferences around the world. In 2015, he went to a conference called “the Jackson Hole Summit on monetary policy and global finance”, organised by the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. While the event itself included people with a range of views, and had speakers such as Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England, Mr Baker’s ‘hotel and means’ at the event were paid for by the group “American Principles in Action”.

American Principles in Action is a radical right group in the USA who, support a return to the gold standard (an idea that Baker often discusses), but who are better known for their hard conservative viewpoints and rhetoric. This week, their executive director, Terry Schilling, asked: “will Christian schools, charities, businesses, and families be forced to acquiesce to the hyper-sexual LGBT agenda or face government persecution?”.

The year Baker received money from the organisation, they in turn were paid $250,000 by the American billionaire Robert Mercer, according to research by the website DeSmog. Mercer is at the centre of investigations by Observer journalist Carole Cadwalladr into Brexit and the election of Donald Trump and, among other things, is the owner of the company Cambridge Analytica, which was at the heart of both campaigns.

In 2012 (twice), and 2016, Baker attended conferences with his costs paid for by the American Liberty Fund, a group described by former US Vice President Al Gore as “radical right wing”. Describing the conferences they organise for US judges, Gore wrote that those who attend: "are generally responsible for writing the most radical pro-corporate, anti-environmental, and activist decisions". The Liberty Fund has a history of close collaboration with the Charles Koch Institute, co-publishing pamphlets, organising ‘coloquia’ and hosting seminars together. Charles Koch, and his brother David are fossil fuel industry billionaires who spend a lot of their money fighting against action on climate change and healthcare in the USA.

He hangs out with some surprising characters...

In 2014, Baker attended an event called The Antigua Forum, which claims it “gathers political leaders, entrepreneurs, and experts from around the world”, and which includes among its attendees figures from the international libertarian right. Participants in the event from over the years, listed on its website, include Andrei Illarionov, the former senior economic adviser to Vladimir Putin who they credit with a “a key role in implementing Russia’s flat income tax”; a parade of wealthy Americans involved in the libertarian right; and Mamadou Koulibaly, a senior figure in the government of (and close ally of) Laurent Gbagbo, the former Ivorian president currently on trial for crimes against humanity at the Hague.

UK attendees, other than Steve Baker, include Sam Bowman, Executive Director of the Adam Smith Institute, Robert Boyd, managing trustee of the Institute for Economic Affairs, and Andrew Haldenby, who is a co-founder and director of the free-market think think tank Reform, and a former trustee of Reform Scotland.

He thinks Equatorial Guinea’s human rights violations are ‘trivial’ – after a lavish visit funded by the country’s dictator

In 2011, Baker was one of three MPs (along with Nadine Dorries and Caroline Nokes) who made a trip to Equatorial Guinea, funded by the dictatorial regime there, via a trust based in the tax-haven Malta. The group stayed in a five star hotel with an eighteen-hole golf course and spa in the oil-rich dictatorship where 70% of citizens live in poverty. They reported at the end that human rights violations in the country were “trivial”, in direct contrast to Amnesty International, who have reported repeated incidents of torture in the country. The trip was roundly condemned by the MPs’ colleagues at the time.

The fossil fuel lobby and flirtation with climate denial

In 2015, he sat (along with the DUP MP and Brexit campaign manager Jeffrey Donaldson) on the All Party Parliamentary Group on unconventional oil and gas, and  later became the vice-chair. The group is funded by a long list of fossil fuel companies, as research from SpinWatch and Powerbase shows.

Baker has written positively in the past about the work of the Global Warming Policy Foundation and they have cross-posted blogs by Baker on their website. The GWPF is an off-the-wall climate denying think-tank set up by Nigel Lawson, and based out of 55 Tufton Street, the same address as a number of right wing/Leave supporting organisations which almost all refuse to reveal the sources of their funding. Similarly, Baker has written in the past about the “uncertainties” around climate science, and claims that if it is happening, then it is caused by population growth in the developing world (rather than the consumption of the wealthy or the fossil fuel industry, which funds his All Party Group).

He seems to really like vaping – and asbestos

Steve Baker has been a regular speaker at events organised by the controversial right wing group the Freedom Association and was, until “three or four years ago”, a member, according to a spokesperson for the organisation. The group’s conferences were also attended by the Constitutional Research Council chair Richard Cook, around the same time.

The Freedom Association is notorious for its historic support for apartheid, and the anti-Catholic bigotry of its founder, Ross McWhirter. McWhirter, was a controversial journalist who campaigned in the 1970s for strict restrictions on Irish people in Britain, including making it compulsory for all Irish people in Britain to register with the local police and to provide signed photographs of themselves when renting flats or booking into hotels and hostel. In 2011, Baker complained to the BBC about a David Baddiel show on McWhirter’s twin, another Freedom Association co-founder, Norris McWhirter.

Baker seems over the years to have reflected a number of the Freedom Association’s campaigns in his parliamentary activities. For example, the Freedom Association is currently running a “Free to Vape” campaign, against EU regulation of e-cigarettes. Baker has written about how, like the Association, he opposed the EU tobacco directive. Bath University has described the directive as “the most lobbied dossier in EU history”, saying that “the tobacco industry accessed the highest levels of EU political and legal power to water down new tobacco products regulations, our research has revealed.” There is no evidence of any financial links between Baker and the tobacco or vaping industries.

Similarly, many of the people involved in the Freedom Association over the years seem to have the same niche interest in pushing for the deregulation of white asbestos. Last week, the union Unite raised concerns that Baker has lobbied for the deregulation of the life-threatening substance, including asking a number of parliamentary questions in 2010 and, in 2015, lobbying a government minister on the issue.

The union pointed out “that Mr Baker's questions... are in line with a well-funded pro-asbestos lobby, which argues contrary to scientific evidence that white asbestos is safe. The pro-asbestos group has the support of several right-wing politicians and commentators within both the Conservative Party and UKIP.”

What they didn’t mention is that a number of these people seem to have notably close links to the Freedom Association in particular, including its former honorary chair, the UKIP MEP Roger Helmer, who regularly comments on the matter, and the journalist Christopher Booker, who has spoken at a number of Freedom Association events, and who, George Monbiot pointed out in 2011, had to that point written no fewer than 42 articles arguing for the deregulation of white asbestos based on ‘evidence’ from an ‘expert’ who, as Monbiot discovered, had literally invented positions at fictional academic departments in order to peddle his pro-industry and life-threatening lies.

A spokesman for the Freedom Association said that they receive no funding from the asbestos or vaping industries, and didn’t know of any comment their organisation had made on the matter. The Freedom Association is quoted here downplaying the risks of asbestos.

Steve Baker and Brexit

The Labour MP Pat McFadden reported Baker to the police and the Electoral Commission last year over an email that was leaked to the Times in which he said:

“It is open to the Vote Leave family to create separate legal entities, each of which could spend £700,000: Vote Leave will be able to spend as much money as is necessary to win the referendum.”

However, Vote Leave has denied that it was the source of the money paid to the DUP.

Steve Baker was deemed by Paul Goodman, the editor of ConservativeHome (and his predecessor as MP for Wycombe) ‘one of the 5 people that made Brexit happen’, due to his role in fighting internally on purdah laws ahead of the referendum. Yet some question the extent of his influence and knowledge. Speaking to openDemocracy, Edward McMillan-Scott, the former leader of the Conservative group in the European parliament, said, “Steve Baker is a patsy for the likes of Dan Hannan”, referring to the Eurosceptic MEP, and claimed that he had nothing like the knowledge of Europe required to understand what he was really doing.

But whether he’s his own man, or a puppet for one group or another, Steve Baker now plays a vital role in constructing Britain’s future. He has serious questions to answer about his connections to the murky world of the Constitutional Research Council and its mysterious funding for Brexit, as well as the American right and global corporate interests and their lobby groups.

openDemocracy contacted Baker’s office in an attempt to get answers. They told us to talk to the Department for Exiting the EU, which in turn got back to our questions by telling us to talk to Conservative Party HQ. CCHQ is yet to answer our calls. We’ll let you know what they have to say.


Correction: This piece previously said that Andrew Haldenby is a trustee of Reform Scotland. He is in fact a former trustee. We have now corrected this.

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