Vote Leave’s former chief technology officer boasted to colleagues that he could use unknown online campaign groups to "split the vote" of Conservative opponents, openDemocracy has learned.
Thomas Borwick, a digital consultant closely linked to the Tories, has been accused of “pretending” to be the Green Party after buying social media ads that called on voters in key swing constituencies to “Vote Green” and “support your local Green candidate”.
A former colleague of Borwick’s said that the 32-year-old deputy chairman of the Cities of London and Westminster Conservatives had previously discussed using anonymous-looking campaigns to buy political ads to "split the vote" of anti-Tory parties. The ads, he said, could be bought unbeknownst to the party in whose name they appear.
A previously-unknown company owned by Borwick called 3rd Party Ltd bought ads on Facebook and Instagram that have been seen at least 200,000 times in less than a week, Wired revealed. The company, which was only set up this month, is also running social media ads to “Save Brexit”.
This general election has seen a sharp increase in the number of third-party campaigns pushing messages that chime with political parties, a practice that exploits loopholes in British electoral law, and that fits in with the SuperPAC-filled culture of US election campaigns, where Borwick previously worked.
But Borwick's 3rd Party Ltd looks like the first example of a partisan campaigning group in Britain attempting to persuade voters to support a party that it has no relationship with.
The adverts – eight in total – appear to be targeting people in Southampton, Manchester, Plymouth, Oxford, Sheffield, Brighton, Cambridge and Bath. Of the 25 constituencies in these areas, only Brighton Pavilion is currently held by the Greens. The others contain a number of marginal seats, including some key battlegrounds between Labour, the Lib Dems and the Conservatives.
Experts said that ads from third party campaigns like 3rd Party Ltd - which can spend around £647,000 during the general election if they register with the Electoral Commission - risk spreading disinformation and confusion.
The system is “wide open to abuse,” said Martin Moore, senior lecturer in political economy at King’s College London.
“The more confusion there is about who is spending what, on which ads, and on behalf of whom, the more confused people will become and the more that all parties will be tarred with the same brush. Eventually, the public will just assume that ‘they’re all at it’.”
At the last election, Green candidates in the seats targeted by Borwick's 3rd Party Ltd polled between 1.2%-3.3%, and the ads are being seen in several constituencies where the Green Party is not even standing a candidate.
The Green Party's head of elections Chris Williams has said the party "would always encourage voters to check the source of any information they are receiving due to the large amount of disinformation currently circulating the web."
Borwick told openDemocracy that “3rd Party Ltd is a non-party campaigning organisation working on issue-based causes on behalf of our donors.”
Borwick, who worked as a consultant for Cambridge Analytica’s parent company SCL, has said that elections in the digital age are won by splitting the electorate into fragments that can be sent targeted messages. As chief technology officer at Vote Leave, he divided the UK into 72 groups of voters who were sent tens of millions of Facebook ads.
In 2017, Borwick, who runs a number of secretive digital campaigning consultancies from a well-heeled office overlooking Parliament, paid-for social media adverts targeting anti-Brexit Conservative MPs.
These ads accused the MPs of “sabotage”. Tory MP Anna Soubry said Borwick was “stoking and fuelling the fire” of online hate. Borwick declined to say where the funding for the ads came from. The Information Commissioner’s Officer subsequently started investigating the firm’s use of voters’ personal information for targeting purposes during the Brexit referendum.
Relatively little has been spent on Borwick’s 3rd Party adverts: between £2,400 and £3,192 in four days on the Green Party ads and less than £300 on the Save Brexit campaign. But in an illustration of just how effective spending on Facebook ads can be, they have already had over 200,000 impressions. It is unclear which client Borwick is acting on behalf of.
Company filings show that Borwick registered “3rd Party Ltd” with Companies House on 13 November 2019. As of 25 November, 3rd Party Ltd’s Facebook page had still only been “liked” by two people.
Borwick is closely tied to Conservative politics. His mother, Victoria, is a former Tory MP and his father, Conservative hereditary peer Lord Borwick, runs the party’s Renaissance Forum donor club.
Thomas Borwick is the founder and CEO of a range of professional campaigning organisations mainly based around elections and technology. These operate from a family-owned Westminster house on Great College Street, just off College Green. The companies used to operate as the Kanto Group. However, the group and its members have attracted a lot of negative publicity, from Vote Leave’s controversial use of data-mining techniques when Borwick was its chief technology officer, through to questions raised about Kanto running anti-abortion adverts in Ireland’s referendum last year.
Last year, it emerged in Private Eye that Borwick had hired two of Cambridge Analytica's most senior data scientists, Dr Tadas Jucikas and Dr Brent Clickard, who had both gone to ground after the collapse of SCL/Cambridge Analytica.
Extensive steps had been taken to ensure that the participation of the two data scientists in Borwick’s business ventures remained a secret. However Dr Clickard was photographed by Google Street View emerging from the company’s Great College Street address.
openDemocracy has also learned that Borwick’s business empire has been rebranded as the College Green Group, with the company having been incorporated in October. The new company website makes no mention of Borwick. Of the former Kanto companies, only Kanto Elections retains the branding. The College Green Group also has an external office on Victoria Street, a ten-minute walk away from their main building.
It is unorthodox for an active Conservative to campaign for the Green Party - and a breach of the party's rules. Cities of London and Westminster Conservative Association, where Borwick is Deputy Chairman, was contacted for comment, and specifically asked if this was not grounds for expulsion from the Conservative Party. A spokesman said, "What he does in his personal time is none of our business", and directed enquiries to Borwick himself.
Borwick told openDemocracy: “Green causes are very important to some of our patrons, and our objective, therefore, is to encourage voters to give the Green Party its strongest-ever showing at the ballot box, sending a message to politicians about the strength of feeling on this issue.”
Borwick added that his campaign “have not and will not exceed” election spending limits. “We also do not coordinate our campaigns either with political parties or anyone else, so as not to inappropriately collaborate or impact their own spending returns,” he said.