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Revealed: Former Brexit minister accused of breaching ministerial code in meeting with Spanish far right

Brexit department claims Chris Heaton-Harris “wasn’t acting in a ministerial capacity” – but he discussed Brexit with the controversial far-right Vox party, prompting calls for an investigation.

Peter Geoghegan Jenna Corderoy
Peter Geoghegan Jenna Corderoy
16 May 2019
Department for Exiting the European Union, Downing Street
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Kirsty O'Connor/PA Archive/PA Images

Former Brexit minister Chris Heaton-Harris has been accused of breaching the ministerial code during an off-the-books meeting with representatives from the hardline far-right Spanish party, Vox, in Westminster this March.

Vox has been endorsed by former Trump advisor Steve Bannon, and has pledged to roll back laws against domestic abuse, loosen gun control, oppose equal marriage and build a wall around Spanish territory in Africa. It is one of a number of far-right parties expected to make gains in next week’s European elections.

Conservative MP Heaton-Harris met with Vox’s vice secretary for international relations, Ivan Espinosa de los Montero, at Portcullis House. The Department for Exiting the European Union said that the former Brexit minister – who resigned last month – was “not acting in a ministerial capacity” and that no government officials were present.

But openDemocracy has learned that the minister discussed Brexit with the far-right representative – raising questions about whether the code governing ministers’ behaviour was breached.

Under the ministerial code, ministers must report any discussions they have with external organisations or individuals about issues related to government business “as soon as possible after the event”.

The Liberal Democrats’ Brexit spokesman, Tom Brake MP, said he will be writing to Theresa May to ask if Heaton-Harris’s meeting with Vox broke the ministerial code.

“Meeting with far-right politicians behind your department’s back sounds like a clear cut breach of the ministerial code,” Brake said.

Transparency International said that the then-Brexit minister’s failure to report the meeting with Vox “gives the impression of impropriety”.

Vox, which entered the Spanish parliament for the first time last month, has been building strong links with right-wing parties across Europe ahead of next week’s European elections. Mr Espinosa de los Montero was in Westminster to forge connections with British Conservatives.

The Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU) said that Heaton-Harris “did not meet representatives of Vox in a ministerial capacity”, in response to a freedom of information request from openDemocracy.

But Espinosa de los Montero told openDemocracy: “Brexit was the main topic. The purpose of the visit was not Brexit, but Brexit seems to be the main topic in every conversation in British politics.”

The ministerial code also states that ministers’ meetings should be arranged through their departments, with officials present. The Vox meeting was organised not by DExEU but by the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), the European Parliament grouping which includes the Tory party.

Heaton-Harris was a leading figure in the pro-Brexit European Research Group, led by Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, before becoming a Brexit minister in July 2018. He resigned in April, in opposition to Theresa May’s Brexit deal.

As well as Spanish voters and potential investors, Espinosa de los Montero met with Heaton-Harris and two other Tory MPs aligned with the ERG, Andrew Lewer and Scottish Tory Ross Thomson.

“We saw three, and all three were Brexiteers,” Espinosa de los Montero said. “It was the first time we ever met and it was a nice, general conversation, not very specific,” he said, adding that: “We like to establish relationships with parties such as the Conservatives, which I think is our natural ally in the UK.”

After a photograph of Thomson with Espinosa de los Montero was posted on Twitter, a Scottish Conservative spokesman said that “none of these meetings constitute an endorsement of any views Vox may hold.”

Last month, openDemocracy revealed that Vox is a central part of a network of far-right movements across Europe, backed by American and Russian ultraconservatives, and supported by an American political consultant linked to the Trump campaign.

"Absolute scandal"

The meeting between Vox and Heaton-Harris is not the first time that discussions involving a Brexit minister and the UK’s departure from the EU have not been recorded in government transparency data.

Last year, Buzzfeed revealed that another Brexit minister, Steve Baker, frequently met to discuss Brexit with Shanker Singham, a trade lobbyist now at the dark money-funded think tank the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA). These meetings took place outside of office hours, away from the Brexit department and were not disclosed to the public.

openDemocracy also revealed that, as minister, Baker was present at a European Research Group gathering on ‘Reporting Brexit’ and had dinner with an Italian libertarian think tank linked to the IEA. DExEU said that Baker, who resigned in 2018, was present at both events in a personal capacity, and not as a government minister.

“The government’s own rules are clear that when ministers engage external stakeholders on issues relating to official business this should be recorded and made public. This is not an obligation they can escape by claiming the meeting was on party or private time. Withholding or failing to report this information only gives the impression of impropriety,” said Steve Goodrich, senior researcher office at Transparency International UK.

Liberal Democrat Tom Brake accused Heaton-Harris of “currying favour with Vox”.

“I will be writing to the prime minister to ask whether the government supports negotiating with Vox or did Minister Heaton-Harris break the ministerial code?” Brake said.

Matthew McGregor, campaigns director, HOPE not hate said: “It’s an absolute scandal that a Tory MP has been meeting with representatives of a far right party. This is a deeply worrying state of affairs and Mr Heaton-Harris and his officials should explain themselves immediately. It’s hard to imagine any sort of justification for a meeting with Spain’s far right party, particularly if it discussed any British government policy.”

openDemocracy asked DExEU if the department had a record of Heaton-Harris’s meeting with Vox, and if the department would be examining whether a breach of the ministerial code took place.

In response, a DExEU spokesperson said: “The then Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union Chris Heaton-Harris did not meet representatives of Vox in a ministerial capacity and DExEU was not involved in the meeting referenced in the article contained in your request.”

openDemocracy approached Chris Heaton-Harris for comment and has yet to receive a response.

Additional reporting by Belen Lobos.

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