As the deadline looms for a final Brexit agreement between the EU and the UK, the Leave and Remain camps are readying for a second campaign over the nature of the UK’s future relationship with the union.
Both camps will seek to push their arguments into the British press, hoping to convince late-comers to their cause.
While national newspapers have long taken a stance on Brexit, op-eds, columns and opinion pieces will be a key tool for lobbyist from both sides of the debate to push their agenda into the public sphere.
Research by DeSmog UK shows how a network of hard-Brexit think tanks pushing for deregulation and with links to climate science deniers has secured a footing in the mainstream press.
Working out of two addresses in Tufton Street near Westminster, this network which includes climate science denial group the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF), has been accused by BeLeave whistleblower Shahmir Sanni of holding regular meetings to “agree on a single set of right-wing talking points” and “securing more exposure to the public”.
This Tufton Street network has strong ties with the right-wing press including the free business newspaper distributed in and around London City AM and The Telegraph — both of which have been repeatedly used to push the group’s agenda into the media.
Deep ties: City AM and the Institute of Economic Affairs
At the heart of the Tufton Street network is the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), an opaque London-based free-market think tank registered as an “educational charity” with the mission “to improve understanding of the fundamental institutions of a free society”.
Earlier this month, on the same day as the UK government released its ‘no deal’ scenarios, the IEA launched what it called a series of “‘no deal’ Brexit fear-checkers” which it said would “help separate theoretical risks from reality” or what it called “Project Fear from Project Fact”.
The IEA recently hit headlines after an undercover investigation by Greenpeace’s Unearthed and The Guardian suggested the think tank was involved in a “cash for access” system and offered potential US donors access to UK ministers.
The IEA denied the allegation. Undercover recordings yet showed IEA director Mark Littlewood claiming Shanker Singham, the director of the international trade and competition unit at the IEA, and his team speak with environment minister Michael Gove “every three or four days, along with David Davis, Boris Johnson, Liam Fox”.
While the IEA’s first briefings have already attracted plenty of media attention from across the political spectrum, it is worth noting that the think tank has deep connections with parts of the press.
Christian May, editor-in-chief of City AM, is also a member of the IEA’s advisory council.
At the time of his appointment in 2015, City AM was understood to want to adopt a more eurosceptic tone, according to the Guardian. May came from the PR industry and had no senior editorial experience before his appointment.
Between 2008 and 2009, May was the director of operations at the Young Britons’ Foundation, a controversial Tory party affiliate which made the news after one of its alumni Mark Clarke was accused of bullying young activist Elliott Johnson, who took his life. Clarke denied the allegations.
The group’s radical views previously earned it its reputation as a “Tory madrasa” used to teach young Conservatives the “dark arts” of politics.
A 2013 annual meeting of the Young Britons’ Foundation, attended by May, also included a number of people with connections to the Tufton Street network. This included Steve Baker, Taxpayers Alliance founder and former chief executive of Vote Leave Matthew Elliott, Brexit Central editor Jonathan Isaby, and ConservativeHome founder Tim Montgomerie.
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Last week, City AM broke the story that David Davis is to write a foreword to a 140 page “Alternative Brexit Plan”, which is due to be published this week and will make the case for a Canada-style trade deal.
According to City AM, the proposal is being coordinated by Singham, of the IEA, and in collaboration with at least one another think tank and a City law firm.
Director of research at the IEA Jamie Whyte has also written four controversial columns for The Telegraph since July 2017 — including opposing the plastic straw ban and how “turning Britain into a tax haven would make us all richer”.
Matthew Elliott and the Vote Leave campaign
Matthew Elliott, former chief executive of Vote Leave and editor-at-large of Brexit Central, is a regular columnist at City AM. Elliott is also the co-founder of the TaxPayers’ Alliance that advocates for a low-tax society and has been pushing for deregulation post-Brexit.
Despite Elliott’s prominent role in pushing for a hard-Brexit agenda, City AM fails to identify his political affiliations in his short biography on the paper’s website. Instead, it reads: “Matthew Elliott is the senior political advisor to Shore Capital.”
Shore Capital is a London-based private equity firm. Besides regular and significant donations to the Conservative Party, the Shore Capital Group donated £50,000 to Vote Leave, then headed by Elliott.
Last month, in his City AM column titled “Economic optimism is battling the Project Fear no-deal panic”, Elliott listed “project fear stories” about what would happen in the case of a no-deal Brexit — making the case that the economy was showing positive signs despite the Remainers’ threats.
“With the good economic news to counter the more extreme scare scenarios, the threat of a no-deal Brexit is — so far — having as much impact as the first iteration of Project Fear in 2016,” he wrote.
City AM did not respond to DeSmog UK’s request for comment on how the paper discloses affiliations to lobbying and political groups in time for publication.
Allister Heath, editor of the Sunday Telegraph and former City AM editor, helped Elliott co-found the TaxPayers’ Alliance back in 2004 along with his sister Florence Heath, who subsequently married Elliott.
In his latest column for the Telegraph, Heath defended his views for a low-tax society, attacking Theresa May’s “ridiculous Chequers” plan” and accusing the government of handling a “kamikaze Brexit strategy” by endorsing a soft Brexit.
Economists for Free Trade
The Economists for Free Trade (EFT) is a campaign group pushing for a “no-deal” Brexit while arguing that the adoption of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules would be “the very best” option for the UK.
The group claims to be a coalition of independent economists despite having strong ties to Brexiteer Conservative MPs, right-leaning mainstream media and some well-known climate science deniers.
The group publishes reports on a range of topics related to Brexit with the aim to demonstrate the path from “project fear to project prosperity”.
An EFT advisor and climate science denier Matt Ridley quoted figures from another EFT member, Michael Burrage, in his Times column titled “We’ve nothing to fear from a world-trade Brexit” to support his argument that a no-deal Brexit may benefit the UK. Yet, Ridley did not declare his own affiliation to the group.
Ridley is also an advisor to the UK’s climate science denying group the GWPF but does not disclose his affiliation to the organisation in his columns.
In his City AM column dated 16 August, Leach compared Theresa May’s Chequers’ plan to the Monty Python’s “Dead Parrot” sketch. “Whichever way you look at it the Chequers agreement is dead,” he wrote.
“We are staring at a no-deal Brexit in the face” he said, quoting the EFT research which claimed that for the UK to thrive after Brexit, the country had to be outside both the single market and the customs union. Unlike the others, Leach disclosed his membership to the group in the column.
Sunday Telegraphs columnist Liam Halligan is also a member of the EFT.
In a column in July this year titled “No deal is looking increasingly likely and that’s just fine”, Halligan argues that “many MPs fear ‘no deal’” because of “unchallenged scare tactics of ‘professional Remainers’”. Nowhere in the piece did Halligan disclose his membership to the EFT.
His column echoes some of the arguments used by his colleague and the convener of the EFT, Edgar Miller, who wrote a column for the Telegraph arguing “Don’t worry about the Brexit negotiations, no deal is better than what we have now with the EU”.
The column sets out some of the work the EFT have done to show the UK would be better off trading under WTO rules than remaining in the EU.
Roger Bootle, founder of the Capital Economics and also a member of the EFT, is another Telegraph columnist described by the paper as “one of the City’s leading economists”. Bootle’s short biography on the Telegraph’s website does not disclose his affiliation with the pro-Brexit group.
The Telegraph did not respond to DeSmog UK’s request for comment in time for publication.
According to Electoral Commission data, Bootle donated £200,000 to Vote Leave during the referendum campaign.
Slamming what he described as Theresa May’s “Brexit disaster” and advocating a full break-up from the EU, Bootle wrote in a column called “What business leaders know about Brexit … and what they don’t” in which he claimed the business community had warned against a hard-Brexit because “business people are short-minded”.
Partisan media and Guido Fawkes’ Leave recruits
The Tufton Street network boasts a growing presence in the new media sphere.
Tim Montgomerie, former columnist at The Times, co-founder of Conservative Home and editor of UnHerd is a key example.
In an 2010 interview with the New Statesman, Montgomerie described himself as a climate change “sceptic”, adding: “I’m sceptical about policy. We should do green things, but only when they have other benefits. […] I’m much more worried about Iran than about global warming.”
Montgomerie, a hardline Brexiteer, is an advisor to the EFT and has been close to Elliott and the Taxpayers’ Alliance since the group’s launch in 2009.
That year, in a Conservative Home post, Montgomerie described the Taxpayers’ Alliance as being part of a growing “conservative movement” and wrote that he had given a joint presentation with its co-founder Elliott at a conference at the Manning Centre in Ottawa.
The political blog Guido Fawkes has also recently strengthened its ties to the Tufton Street network.
Hugh Bennett, former deputy editor at Brexit Central and correspondence officer at Vote Leave, and Tom Harwood who led the student Leave campaign joined the Guido Fawkes as news editor and reporter.
Both seem to get on well with Darren Grimes, former deputy editor at Brexit Central and recently appointed digital manager at the IEA. On separate occasions, Grimes tweeted pictures of friendly encounters with Bennett and Harwood.
Grimes — founder of BeLeave, the grassroot campaign used to channel money to Vote Leave — was fined £20,000 and reported to the police after the Electoral Commission found evidence of the Vote Leave campaign breaching electoral spending rules.
Another regular contributor to both City AM and the Telegraph is Ryan Bourne.
Bourne is the chair for the public understanding of economics at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank based in Washington DC and co-founded by the fossil fuel magnate Charles Koch who has played a significant role in funding climate science denial in the US.
The Cato Institute has long spread disinformation about climate change.
Through these links, the voices of a select network of pro-Brexit lobbyists and campaigners have become a regular fixture of the UK’s mainstream press — often without columnists declaring their interests.