Dark Money Investigations: Investigation

Revealed: ‘Alternative Irish border’ Brexit lobbyist in fresh conflict of interest row

Shanker Singham, reappointed to key government trade role, paid to lobby influential Biden allies on post-Brexit trade deal in Washington

Peter Geoghegan
Peter Geoghegan Marcus Leroux
17 September 2020
Shanker Singham
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Matt Crossick/Empics Entertainment

A controversial former lobbyist was reappointed to advise the British government on trade while continuing to work for undisclosed private clients, prompting concerns over conflict of interest.

Shanker Singham, who resigned from a similar role in 2018 after openDemocracy reported that he was also working for a commercial lobbying firm, was appointed to the Department for International Trade’s trade and agriculture commission in July.

Singham is reported to be in the running for all or part of a £200m government contract related to post-Brexit checks down the Irish Sea. Now evidence reviewed by openDemocracy and Source Material suggests that, as he returns to the Department for International Trade, he remains active as a lobbyist.

Singham’s personal consultancy firm spent $20,000 on Democrat-aligned lobbyists in Washington to advocate for a US-UK free trade deal last year. The lobbyists helped broker a series of meetings in Washington for Singham and former Northern Irish first minister David Trimble, including with Congressman Richard Neal, head of the influential Ways and Means Committee that would greenlight a post-Brexit trade deal.

Neal is one of a number of Democrats who has voiced serious concerns about Boris Johnson’s proposed changes to the protocol on the Northern Ireland border. On Wednesday, presidential nominee Joe Biden tweeted that any post-Brexit trade deal would be “contingent” on respecting the Good Friday Agreement.

Angus MacNeill, chairman of the parliamentary select committee on international trade, said of Singham’s lobbying work: “If he’s been lobbying and there is money involved then all other commission members should know that. It shouldn’t take journalists to dig up this information.”

“These relationships should be known and not hidden,” the Scottish National Party MP added.

Singham is listed by the committee as representing Competere Ltd, the company he owns. “Competere is not a lobbyist but a trade consultancy,” he told SourceMaterial.

Singham said that his trip to Washington was a “pro-bono mission” paid for out of his own pocket. But David Trimble said he understood the trip to have been paid for by “some conservatives”, though he was unsure of the exact source of the money.

Dubbed the “Brexiteers’ brain”, Singham is a fellow at the Institute for Economic Affairs, a free-market think tank that takes money from undisclosed corporate clients. The charities regulator criticised Singham’s previous work at the Legatum Institute for pro-Brexit bias.

Jet-set diplomacy

In November, Singham and Trimble travelled to Washington for some jet-set diplomacy, aimed to smooth the path to a UK-US trade agreement by selling Boris Johnson’s Brexit arrangements to wary US congressmen.

A key part of the DC charm offensive was making the case for the Northern Ireland protocol agreed between Johnson and the European Union – which the prime minister himself is now rowing back on.

Singham has been one of the main advocates of the so-called ‘alternative arrangements’ for the Irish border, a scheme backed by a number of Tory MPs and funded by a private company called Prosperity UK, owned by Brexit donor Paul Marshall.

In a single day in Washington, Singham and Trimble held almost a dozen meetings, mainly with Irish-American politicians on Capitol Hill. Smoothing the way was Transnational Strategy Group, a Washington DC-based lobbying firm that Singham’s personal company paid $20,000 specifically to lobby for a ‘US-UK Free Trade Agreement’, according to documents filed in the US.

Among the meetings arranged by the US lobbyists –- former Obama staffer Joel Rubin and Ari Mittelman, who had previously represented Libyan militias – was one with Richard Neal, the Democrat chair of the Ways and Means Committee of the House of Representatives, which would oversee any US-UK trade deal.

Singham and Trimble also met veteran Republican congressman Pete King, who had spoken in favour of the Irish Republican Army during the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland. After the meeting King tweeted that while he and Trimble “didn’t always agree” in the past, they were “on same page now” about a UK-US free- trade deal.

Screenshot 2020-09-10 at 09.59.25.png

Singham has long been a proponent of a US-UK free trade deal and has written about the “myths” surrounding chlorinated chicken. The trade advisor also appears to have the ear of environment secretary George Eustice: the two men corresponded via WhatsApp about supermarket supply chains at the start of lockdown, according to documents recently disclosed to openDemocracy following a Freedom of Information Request.

Asked about the Washington trip, Singham said: “The work done with David Trimble was not lobbying work related to the US deal but we brought Trimble over to explain the Northern Irish Protocol and the prior backstop to interested parties in the US.”

On his company’s current activities, Singham said: “Competere does not disclose its clients just as law firms don’t disclose theirs”. He declined to discuss any other lobbying work or clients, or whether he has disclosed any current affiliations to the government.

Accounts filed in April for the business, of which Singham is the sole shareholder, showed it owed £66,313 in corporation tax for the previous financial year, suggesting earnings of around £350,000.

Corporate clients

Singham is no stranger to the US, having spent nearly twenty years there as a lawyer and lobbyist for clients including the owners of the Tate & Lyle sugar brand.

In June, weeks before his reappointment by the government, another of his private clients, British Sugar, used his work to push for a post-Brexit trading system.

Last month the Unearthed website reported that Tate & Lyle stands to be the sole beneficiary of a government decision to allow tariff-free raw cane sugar imports, when the UK’s post-Brexit ‘transition’ arrangements with the EU come to an end next year, a tariff break worth up to £73m.

While serving as a government adviser, Singham remains a fellow at the Institute for Economic Affairs. The right-wing think tank - which does not declare its funders - has an interest in agriculture as well as in trade in the time of Brexit, the subjects on which Singham is advising the government.

The IEA has sought donations from US agribusinesses and in 2018 its director-general told an undercover reporter from the investigative website Unearthed that it was in the “Brexit-influencing game”. Earlier this month, the think tank was targeted by Extinction Rebellion in a protest against the influence of right- wing think tanks.

Liz Truss, who as Secretary of State for International Trade was responsible for reappointing Singham, had three meetings with the IEA earlier this year which were removed from transparency records and later reinstated following criticism.

Truss’s trade and agriculture commission mainly comprises representatives from the farming and retail sectors including the National Union of Farmers and the British Retail Consortium. The only appointees not representing a clearly defined sector are Singham and former New Zealand trade and agriculture minister Sir Lockwood Smith, who also sits on the IEA’s trade advisory council.

A Department of International Trade spokesman declined to answer detailed questions about Singham’s appointment, his disclosures to the commission and any potential conflicts.

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