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Welcome to Boris Johnson’s government of all the lobbyists

The prime minister’s new team has strong links to leading corporate lobbyists – they are representing the ultra-rich who want to shape Brexit.

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
27 July 2019
Boris Johnson's cabinet, including a number of corporate lobbyists
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Aaron Chown/PA Wire/PA Images

The lobbyists are taking control. The firms which ensure that the rich and powerful have more of a say in our politics than the typical British citizen are now at the heart of the cabinet. Do the representatives of these firms leave their personal interests at the door as they become ministers and senior advisers? That ideal is looking ever more laughable.

Let’s just take a look at the details.

Boris Johnson’s campaign manager was the former Tory MP James Wharton. Wharton is an employee of the lobbying giant Hume Brophy, a firm which has talked up its ability to shape Brexit on behalf of big business, and whose clients have included the hedge fund industry, sugar giant Tate and Lyle, and Meat and Livestock Australia: all industries that have much to gain from the deregulation that Brexit will permit.

We asked both Wharton and Hume Brophy to comment on these points, but neither has responded.

C|T Group is the company which ran Johnson’s campaign. Most famously associated with its co-founder, the Australian public relations guru Lynton Crosby, the firm was until recently working for coal mining giant Glencore to undermine renewable energy and environmental activists.

Days after the Brexit vote, C|T Group set up an office in Washington DC – with a website bragging about its access to British politicians and ability to shape Brexit for US corporations. Crosby’s firm, CTF, has not responded to openDemocracy’s request for comment.

Now that Johnson has appointed his cabinet, we can see it’s not just the prime minister who has close connections to those who lobby for the rich and powerful: from the new home secretary to the secretary of state for housing, this is now a government of all the lobbyists. People who used to work for some of the most significant firms that sell our democracy to the highest bidder now have their hands on the steering wheel of state.

David Cameron once said that lobbyists would produce the next big scandal. He was wrong: they have provided the new cabinet.

Esther McVey: secretary of state for housing, defending the wealth of ‘ultra-high-net-worth individuals’

Esther McVey worked for a company which lobbies for the Australian livestock industry | NFU Pics, CC2.0

Esther McVey, the new secretary of state for housing, lost her seat in 2015 before winning another in 2017. During her two years out of Parliament she worked as a senior consultant at lobbying firm Hume Brophy, which now employs James Wharton, and as a special advisor to the company Floreat Group.

Floreat Group, meanwhile, describes itself as an “independent and privately held investment group, serving institutions and a select group of ultra-high-net-worth clients”.

Floreat also offers these ultra-high-net-worth individuals a “private range of discreet services”, such as “services in areas including multi-jurisdictional legal and tax compliance” as well as “reputation management, art services, estate and horse stud management, aircraft and ship management and private concierge services”.

Floreat lists real estate as one of its major investment areas, including major property in west London. As housing minister, McVey will have significant power over real-estate markets, but she hasn’t responded to our questions about what lessons she will bring to the new job.

In 2015, the firm told the Morning Star that she was helping it with its “wealth management” work, but it has not replied to openDemocracy’s request for more information, and neither has McVey.

Priti Patel: Lobbyist for British American Tobacco

Priti Patel on the Vote Leave bus at an event organised by Veterans for Britain before the European referendum | Hannah McKay/PA Archive/PA Images

The new home secretary, Priti Patel, used to be a lobbyist for the firm Weber Shandwick, where her clients included British American Tobacco. While other Weber Shandwick employees were said to be uncomfortable working for such a controversial firm, documents uncovered by The Observer said that Patel was an exception: “Priti [and another employee] seem quite relaxed working with us.”

Weber Shandwick’s clients also include the government of Bahrain, which has been widely criticised for its brutal human rights record. Only months after she was first elected an MP, the Bahraini ministry of foreign affairs flew her to meet a number of its ministers. We asked Patel if she represented Bahrain during her time at Weber Shandwick. She hasn’t responded.

Her trips to the Gulf didn’t stop there. In 2012, the government of the United Arab Emirates paid for her to go on a trip to meet the country's ministers as part of the UK-Bahrain all-party parliamentary group. In both 2013 and 2014, she returned to the UAE, with all-expenses-paid visits to Dubai courtesy of the World Consulting and Research Corporation in New Delhi and a firm called Sun Mark, a food, drink and tobacco firm previously known as Sun Oil.

In 2017, she was forced to resign as international development secretary because of off-the-books meetings with the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanjahu – a client of the Israeli subsidiary of Weber Shandwick. After meeting with her former employers’ client, she asked within her department if they could give aid money to an Israeli project in the illegally occupied Golan Heights.

Since then, her on-the-side work has continued.

She was taken to Ascot last month by the Saudi businessman Mazen al Sawwaf. According to Property Magazine Rwanda, al Sawwaf was in Rwanda last year to witness the signing of a deal between the Rwandan Development Board and the Israeli investment company Mitreli Group. The chairman of Mitreli Group was one of the people Patel met on the trip to Israel that led to her being sacked, while al Sawwaf has been described by the website Intelligence Online as an “intermediary” between the Saudi regime and France. Mr al Sawwaf did not respond to our requests for comment.

More tangible benefits have come from the five hours’ work she has done each month for Viasat, a US communications firm – at the rate of £1,000 an hour. Viasat (as The Guardian revealed this week) supplies technology to the Ministry of Defence, which often works with the Home Office she now runs, and she now faces allegations of having breached the ministerial code in accepting the role.

She also receives £45,000 a year as a non-executive director of an accounting software firm, Accloud. According to an investment firm which owns much of the company, the former international development secretary’s “deep connections throughout India and other developing nations align with Accloud’s go-to-market strategy”.

At time of writing, the Home Office could not clarify whether Patel plans to stand down from these roles, and she has not responded to our request for comment.

Dominic Raab: ‘man in government’ for a dark-money-funded think tank

Dominic Raab addressing the IEA | Youtube.

When Dominic Raab, the new foreign secretary, was appointed Brexit minister, we at openDemocracy asked if he was “the IEA’s man in government”. The Institute for Economic Affairs, perhaps Britain’s most influential think tank, refuses to reveal its funding, but is known to have taken cash from British American Tobacco and BP, and to have been funded by a conservative foundation in the US to promote the privatisation of the NHS.

When Raab wrote a book in 2009, it was launched in the IEA’s offices. In 2012, when he was an MP, the think tank published another book by Raab and a number of his colleagues in which they proposed a string of radical, pro-corporate ideas, like for-profit schools and abolishing a whole collection of workers’ rights, including rights to time off work, and rights for agency workers.

Talking about the book later, Raab said, “It was the IEA which supported us in waging the war of ideas and launching that book.”

Raab has not responded to our request for comment.

Matt Hancock, who stays on as secretary of state for health and social care, also has close links to the IEA, which openly advocates privatisation of the NHS: he accepted a £4,000 donation in 2016 from Neil Record, a board member of the IEA. Record is a fund manager who is chairman of the board of the Global Warming Policy Forum, a think tank often described as climate change denying, though it said to us that it has “no collective view on the science” of climate change. At the time of the donation, Record told The Independent: “I think Matt has a very sound political philosophy.” He has not responded to our request for comment.

Chloe Westley and the TaxPayers’ Alliance

Johnson has announced that his social media team will be led by Chloe Westley. Westley’s previous employer was the TaxPayers’ Alliance, a right-wing campaign group that refuses to disclose the source of its funding but which, The Guardian revealed last year, has taken $100,000 from “a billionaire-founded religious trust incorporated in the Bahamas”.

The TaxPayers’ Alliance responded to The Guardian’s revelations by saying that it presents itself as a grassroots organisation “because that is exactly what we are and what we do”. However, its website offers would-be grassroots activists no opportunity to join the organisation or to get involved in its work.

The TaxPayers’ Alliance did not respond to our request for comment.

A government of all the lobbyists

This is, in other words, a government of all the lobbyists. Those who represent the interests of big business and the super-wealthy have swept into cabinet to ensure that Britain gets a hard-line, disaster capitalist Brexit; that, as we leave the EU, we leave behind basic protections for workers, consumers, the planet and our public services.

Looking forward, we need to be very cautious.

With the appointment of Dominic Cummings – the director of the Vote Leave campaign – as a senior adviser to the prime minister, and Johnson’s decision not to use cabinet appointments to appease his opponents in the party, as you’d expect from a prime minister with such a small majority, and with his face being smeared all over Facebook, it looks increasingly likely that Johnson is contemplating a general election. If he holds one, it looks like his team, with their lobbying links, will have access to greater piles of cash than any election we have seen in recent times.

The last time Cummings and Johnson ran a campaign together – Vote Leave – that outfit broke the laws of our democracy and swallowed the relatively tiny fines for doing so.

If we’re going to defend our democracy from being drowned in the dark money of murky lobbying groups, then we need to give the Electoral Commission the power it needs to properly guard our democracy – which is why we’ve launched a petition to do just that. Please sign it.

And if we’re going to hold this government to account, we’re going to need investigative and campaigning journalism like never before. Please donate to openDemocracy today, so we can keep fighting for democracy.

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