Dark Money Investigations: Opinion

The Brexit dark money lobby has a new target – climate change action

Brexit showed that a few ruthless, well-connected people with big money behind them can change history. Now they’re at it again, and the stakes are even higher

Peter Geoghegan
Peter Geoghegan
30 October 2021, 12.01am
Nigel Farage presents his first show on GB News channel in London
SOPA Images Limited / Alamy Stock Photo

If Brexit proved anything, it’s that a handful of people with powerful connections can go a long, long, way.

Over two decades, a steady drip feed of newspaper stories – and some well-timed political spending – turned a marginal interest into a British national obsession.

Surely it wouldn’t be possible for British politics to be captured like this again? Well, we might be about to find out.

Officially the UK government has committed to Net Zero by 2050, but behind the scenes an organised, well-funded opposition to climate change action is growing on the Conservative Right. And many of those at the vanguard – and their tactics – come straight from the veterans of Brexit.

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A classic example of this appeared in The Telegraph this week: the day before the Budget, it reported a YouGov survey that found a majority of the British public “want a referendum on Boris Johnson’s net zero plans” by the next general election – a majority of those who expressed a preference, that is.

Even Remainers and young people wanted a public vote on Johnson’s carbon policies. Other outlets picked the story up, too. Self-styled “Brexit hardmanSteve Baker tweeted his support for a Net Zero referendum.

It is easy to scoff at The Telegraph, with its dyspeptic opinion pages filled with lockdown sceptics and cosplay libertarians. But the jewel in the Barclay family’s media empire matters. There is a reason Johnson is said to call the Telegraph his “real boss”.

The day after the Telegraph story, Nigel Farage told GB News viewers that a referendum on Green taxes “could well be my latest campaign”.

A question nobody was asking

Perhaps it’s because I spent so long looking at the dark money behind Brexit, but the first thing I thought while reading The Telegraph’s story was: “Who has paid a professional pollster to carry out a survey on a question nobody is asking?”

The answer is something called Car26.org. This, The Telegraph informed its readers, is a “new campaign group calling for a referendum on net zero proposals and a pause in eco regulations until such a ballot is held”.

Yep, you read that right. No climate change mitigation policies until a referendum on Net Zero. Sound familiar?

Brexit saw vast sums of money spent through ‘astroturf’ groups: campaigns posing as grassroots initiatives with no visible support but a deep-pocketed funder behind the scenes. A 20-something scriptwriter in Manchester spent a fortune on hard Brexit Facebook ads.

Before the 2019 general election nominally ‘third party’ campaigns spent £700,000 pushing Conservative talking points without declaring any donations.

Car26.org looks like it was lifted straight out of the same playbook. It was registered at Companies House only last month. Its public face and director – Lois Perry – is a representative for Reclaim, the culture war party fronted by Laurence Fox, the actor and anti-lockdown, anti-diversity activist, and bankrolled by Brexit donor Jeremy Hosking.

There’s more. At the bottom of the Car26 website – past the description of young people’s involvement in climate protests as “borderline child abuse” – there’s a note saying the site is “powered by Blue Sky”. Blue Sky Strategy is a tiny communications company run by a small group of Brexit veterans, including Rebecca Ryan, who is director of the astroturf Defund the BBC campaign and who used to work alongside Vote Leave’s former chief technology officer, Thomas Borwick. What a small world.

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The new front

Brexit and climate change are, of course, very different issues. Many of those who supported the UK leaving the European Union also want action on climate change. But there are striking parallels between the Brexit playbook and the increasingly vocal opposition to action on climate change.

The taxpayer-funded European Research Group of Conservative MPs – which played a starring role in the UK’s exit from the EU – has largely morphed into the Net Zero Scrutiny Group. The Global Warming Policy Foundation — which long promoted climate change denialism — has been relaunched as Net Zero Watch. Wycombe MP Steve Baker, the “Brexit hardman”, is a leading light in both.

Net Zero Scrutiny Group MPs take pains to stress that they don’t deny climate science. But they do want to slow down – or halt – climate change mitigation policies. This has become the position of far-Right groups across Europe, too.

Just as they did when the Northern Irish border dilemma confronted them during the Brexit negotiations, Tory MPs are endlessly talking up technological solutions to the climate crisis.

Feted Teesside Tory mayor – and Donald Trump fan – Ben Houchen recently warned against Green levies, telling The Sun: “You don’t need taxation. You need to believe in the power of innovation and people to come up with the ideas and solutions.”

Black gold

This is music to the ears of the oil and gas industry. The financial ties between them and the Conservatives are, no doubt, simply a coincidence.

As openDemocracy recently revealed, the Tories have received more than £1m from the energy sector since the 2019 election; one MP alone, John Hayes, has received £150,000. The former energy minister has likened climate protestors to “radical Islam”.

It’s not hard to see Net Zero replacing Brexit as the major fissure in the Conservative Party in the coming years. While Johnson might wrap himself in Green rhetoric, Tory party faithful – who will choose the next leader – are far more sceptical.

The influential Tufton Street think tanks – fuelled by dark money and anonymous corporate donations – are increasingly vocal on Net Zero. The Institute of Economic Affairs, which once boasted to an undercover reporter that it was in “the Brexit influencing game”, told its newsletter readers this week that it would “continue to challenge the ropey economics” of Net Zero.

The unthinkable referendum

With COP26 starting in Glasgow on Sunday, much of the focus in the coming weeks will be on the high politics of climate change. But history would suggest we should keep a close eye on what’s happening far away from the plenary sessions and diplomatic meetings.

Referendums on Net Zero are fringe ideas now, but so was Brexit 20 years ago. What changed that was a handful of people with pockets full of dark money who poured it through a porous media and into an ossified political culture.

After Brexit, Matthew Elliott, who ran the Vote Leave campaign, penned a blog post reflecting on the lessons of his success.

“Major policy changes are never impossible,” Elliott wrote. “Who would have thought that a coalition of people working over two decades could convince a country to leave a major international organisation? But with a lot of perseverance, we managed to make history.”

Let’s make sure they don’t make history twice.

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