Today
Fri 7 May 2021

Nafeez Ahmed investigates the opaque UsForThem group lobbying against Coronavirus restrictions and its Conservative Party, Brexit and pro-Trump connections

Boris Johnson re-opened schools too early and delayed closures in 2020 under pressure from a ‘parents’ lobby group which receives PR support from a former Conservative parliamentary candidate and communications advisor to Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s leadership campaign.

The same figure has extensive ties across the Conservative Party – and is currently managing PR for the COVID Recovery Group, founded by Conservative MPs who oppose the Government’s second lockdown.

On 22 December 2020, the Government was warned by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) of the urgent need to close schools to contain the spread of COVID-19 before Christmas. The new variant of the virus, they warned, meant that without earlier school closures, it would not be possible to keep the reproduction rate of the Coronavirus (the ‘R’) below one. But the Government delayed following this advice until 5 January –contributing to rates of COVID-19 among teachers increasing up to 333% higher than local rates. 

The Government’s flip-flop schools policy, and its failure to ensure COVID-19 safety measures in schools, has been criticised by Independent SAGE – the group of public health experts led by former government chief scientific advisor Sir David King – for prolonging the pandemic, escalating transmission leading to excess deaths, and necessitating the latest lockdown to avert an even worse crisis. 

The Government’s failure to close schools early – contrary to advice from its own scientists – was influenced by UsforThem, an opaque lobby group which refused to answer Byline Times’ questions about its funding and political connections.

The group, founded on 19 May 2020, has lobbied for schools to remain open throughout the pandemic. Its position is not simply that schools should stay open, but that they should jettison all pandemic safety measures such as social distancing, masks and ventilation. 

UsforThem has received extensive media coverage in the Telegraph, Daily Mail and through the BBC, in contrast to another parents campaign group, Parents United Against Unsafe Schools, which has received considerably less.

While a spokesperson for UsforThem told Byline Times that the campaign is an “apolitical volunteer-run” group, it is not only advised by a PR consultant with close ties to the Government, it also receives support from a separate anti-lockdown organisation with pro-Trump, Brexit and Conservative ties.

In addition, its founder is a well-connected former corporate lawyer whose business partner worked for then Prime Minister David Cameron’s Strategy Unit in Downing Street.


Direct Line to the PM’s Man

On 22 June, UsforThem’s website claimed that it sent a letter based on “weeks” of work with its lawyers to the Department for Education, threatening legal action against school closures and social distancing in schools, while demanding the full and mandatory opening of all schools. 

“Three days later, on 25 June, Boris Johnson confirmed that the goal of the Government was for schools to open fully in September and that schooling would be placed on a full-time, mandatory footing once more,” the website said, noting further that in July UsforThem campaigners “were able to meet with senior Government officials on both sides of the border to press home our concerns and aspirations”.

The group also took credit for a letters campaign which influenced the Children’s Commissioner’s decision to come out in favour of removing social distancing for younger children.

While UsforThem claims that it is simply a grassroots, parent-run group which receives no funding, Byline Times spoke to several parents who have wondered how the group could operate such a sophisticated lobbying and influencing strategy – including, for instance, projecting images onto buildings and hiring a van to display adverts while driving around Westminster.

Byline Times can exclusively confirm that UsforThem has leveraged high-level political connections through several public relations groups.

UsforThem’s main communications support comes from Ed Barker, who previously stood as a Conservative parliamentary candidate in Derby. He runs the communications firm The SW1 Group, which has managed the Westminster offices of many senior Conservative MPs, written articles and speeches for several incumbent Cabinet ministers, and played a key role in Boris Johnson’s leadership campaign.

Barker has provided PR support to Home Secretary Priti Patel, the Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg, and former Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon. The SW1 website even includes acclaim from political editors at the Daily Mail, The Sunday Times and the Sun

Barker also manages communications for the Blue Collar Conservativism caucus, a campaign founded by former housing minister Esther McVey repackaging the Conservative Party as a working-class movement. The caucus is bigger than the party’s moderate One Nation bloc, yet analysis by The Independent confirmed that the vast majority of the MPs describing themselves as originally ‘working-class’ were in fact from middle -class and often highly privileged backgrounds. 

Barker is currently managing PR for the COVID Recovery Group (CRG) – a Conservative parliamentary faction linked to the hard Brexit European Research Group (ERG). The CRG is led by former Conservative chief whip Mark Harper and its deputy chair is Conservative MP Steve Baker, former minister in the Department for Exiting the European Union.

Barker did not respond to questions about how his work for UsforThem is being financed or whether he played a role in facilitating meetings between the Government and UsforThem representatives.

The USforThem website removed several of the pages cited in this article after Byline Times approached it for comment. The original pages can be found on the web archive here.


The Brexit Lobby Connection

Ed Barker, however, is not the only source of PR support for USforThem.

In recent months, UsforThem has been operating in partnership with anti-lockdown campaign group ‘Time for Recovery’ – another anti-lockdown campaign organisation with direct ties to Nigel Farage, pro-Donald Trump donors in the US and the Conservative Party. The phrasing of the campaign is similar to the hashtag used by the CRG campaign #Road2Recovery.

Founded in October 2020, Time for Recovery – also known as ‘The Recovery Group’ or ‘the Recovery campaign’ – was incorporated as a private limited company on 17 December 2020 to focus, according to company records, on “public relations and communications activities”. 

Fourteen days later, Time for Recovery partnered with UsforThem to draft a ‘position statement’ criticising the Government’s decision to keep primary schools in COVID-19 hotspot areas closed while delaying the opening of secondary schools. 

The December 2020 ‘position statement’ was not the first time that Time for Recovery had partnered with UsforThem. Last November, Time for Recovery helped USforThem organise an open letter to Boris Johnson, purporting to be signed by “hundreds of senior doctors and scientists”. A Daily Mail headline about the letter read: ‘Official Data is ‘Exaggerating’ the Risk of COVID and Talk of a Second Wave is ‘Misleading’, 500 Academics Tell Boris Johnson in an Open Letter Attacking Lockdown”. 

But none of these alleged hundreds of signatories are publicly available. On UsforThem’s website, the letter reveals only 16 signatories. While all of them are senior academics, none appear to have any obvious expertise in COVID-19 or public health responses to pandemics.

Also in November, Time for Recovery was separately behind a large projection of the slogan “LOCKDOWNS DON’T WORK” onto the Houses of Parliament. That month, UsforThem also ran similar campaigns, which included projecting “KEEP SCHOOLS OPEN” onto the side of the National Education Union and sending a van with the same slogan to drive around Westminster. UsforThem repeatedly tagged Time for Recovery into its tweets about the campaigns. 

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As Sam Bright reported in Byline Times, Time for Recovery involves a number of key figures previously involved in World4Brexit Ltd – a lobbying body set up by Nigel Farage. According to the Financial Times, Farage launched World4Brexit to join forces with “a group of Donald Trump-supporting Americans” to raise money for the UK’s departure from the EU. The US side of the operation was being run by Gerry Gunster, a US political strategist who had worked with the Leave.EU campaign in 2016. Gunster would later confirm the early role of Cambridge Analytica in providing the “backbone” for the campaign’s knowhow on “behavioural targeting and micro-targeting”.

Prior to being incorporated in December, Time for Recovery was housed under a separate company, Restore the Balance Ltd. One Jon Paul Dobinson sits as a director on all three companies – Time for Recovery Ltd., Restore the Balance Ltd. and World4Brexit Ltd.

Aside from his political lobbying work, Dobinson runs a slick digital marketing agency called ‘other’ (incorporated as Other Limited and Other Creative Ltd), where his fellow Time for Recovery co-director Adam Whipps is client strategy creative. 

World4Brexit, Time for Recovery and Restore the Balance are all based out of the same address where Dobinson’s marketing agency is based. 

Dobinson’s co-director at World4Brexit is David Anthony Berens, a solicitor who was also a director at Conservative Way Forward Ltd from 2005 until its dissolution in 2013 (a new company was reinstated in 2015). Berens sits on the advisory board of Conservative Way Forward, a campaign group founded by Margaret Thatcher the members of which include senior Conservative Party politicians including several former Cabinet ministers. The organisation boasts that, in all leadership elections since 1997, candidates most favoured by its members have ultimately won – including Boris Johnson. 

Conservative Way Forward’s president is former Conservative MP Sir Gerald Howarth, who was a political advisor to the Leave Means Leave campaign run by Richard Tice and Nigel Farage. 

Howarth is notorious for his support for Enoch Powell’s anti-immigrant ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech and his bigotry on race relations, Muslims, and gay people. He is also an anti-masker who criticised how “the Government has slavishly adhered to the advice of experts” in its pandemic response.

Ed Barker has previously provided PR support for Leave Means Leave, as well as other Brexit campaigns such as Global Britain and StandUp4Brexit.

Although USforThem claims that it does not support COVID-19 denialism, at least two of its team members appear to have views that take them close, if not into, this space.

Listed on the organisation’s team page is Marta Kotlarek, identified as the group’s website administrator. Kotlarek is project director at Web3 Consulting, acknowledged as UsforThem’s web developer on its website. Both UsforThem’s Marta Kotlarek and Web3Consulting co-director Radek Kotlarek have promoted COVID-19 pseudoscience on Twitter – including claiming that, if there was no testing PCR testing, there would be “no pandemic”.

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Well-Connected from the Start

UsforThem’s founder Molly Kingsley has also disseminated fake news about the pandemic on Twitter.

Kingsley’s real first name is Michelle. She is a former corporate lawyer who worked with top 10 law firm Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP, as well as Slaughter and May, currently in the UK’s top 20. She later went on to found two companies, Inkling Search, and online retail platform Showroom Network, with business partner Chloe Ross.

Chloe Ross, who is still registered as a director of Kingsley’s company, previously worked in the Cabinet Office. Her last government post was in Downing Street, where she was deputy director for family and education in then Prime Minister David Cameron’s Strategy Unit. Prior to that, she was a senior manager at Microsoft.

Ross is currently a vice president at Class Pass, a New York-based fitness app which provides access to different fitness classes on a monthly subscription basis. Previously valued at more than $1 billion, the firm has lost 95% of its revenues since the pandemic. Ross could not be reached for comment.

Neither UsforThem nor its PR consultant Barker provided any answers to questions posed by Byline Times concerning its political and financial connections. Instead, Barker said that it would soon be launching “some new and restated objectives”.

However, Kingsley said: “Lockdown is one thing, but the schools shutdown is another. Millions of children have become the pandemic’s forgotten victims as they’ve just been plonked in front of screens and told to get on with it. As if that makes up for being in the classroom, for being around friends and for taking part in all the extra-curricular activities all us parents remember enjoying at school.

“This blanket schools shutdown policy is damaging the health and welfare of children as well as their educational prospects, and millions of parents are also struggling to survive, having to find time for teaching and childcare at the same time as trying to work… We must all unite on our children’s behalf, safeguard their futures, speak up for their interests and ensure our response to COVID doesn’t let an entire generation down.”

While the Government should certainly be held to account for its failure to devise a functional schools policy, it is far from clear that UsforThem’s incessant and simplistic demands to immediately re-open schools without safety measures represents what the vast majority of British parents want. The concern that the lobby group’s political and corporate benefactors want to use children as pawns in their fight to oppose all COVID-19 safety measures seems a legitimate one.

The Department for Education did not respond to a request for comment.

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