Today
Fri 17 September 2021

Sam Bright delves into the new records showing who has gained the ear of Government ministers

It’s summer party season in Westminster. The ritual of journalists, politicians and special advisors congregating at various invitation-only events has taken place over the past few days amid the stifling heat of central London.

This tells us something about the Westminster system, which functions on the peculiar and polluting intimacy of people who govern the country and those who report on it.

This was epitomised by the sycophancy of Times Radio journalist Tom Newton-Dunn’s diary this week, recalling Monday’s Evening Standard bash. “My favourite conversation was with Ed Vaizey and Amber Rudd,” he wrote about the two Conservative politicians, “as they teased each other over who deserved the one peerage between them more”.

Senior politicians do not have a surplus of time and so who they choose to meet can often be highly revealing – providing a glimpse into their political agenda and exposing the influence of individuals in the Westminster nexus.

Thus, it is helpful that Government departments have recently published the records of meetings held by ministers and senior officials (though not of ‘Test and Trace’ chief Baroness Dido Harding) with external individuals, private companies and groups during the period from January to March this year.

The details are telling.

Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Secretary Oliver Dowden hosted a meeting with News UK TV and Wireless on 19 January, records show. Fated to launch earlier this year, News UK TV was a video channel backed by right-wing billionaire Rupert Murdoch. However, in late April it was reported that Murdoch had dropped the idea, after an internal report suggested that it was “commercially unviable”. News UK TV would have been a direct competitor to Andrew Neil’s ‘anti-woke’ outfit GB News.

As an aside, Conservative MP Esther McVey’s register of interests shows that she was paid £950 by News UK to participate in two TV debate pilots.

On 18 January, Dowden met with representatives from the Royal Albert Hall to discuss ‘plans for Great Exhibition 2.0’ – variously known as ‘Festival UK’ or the ‘Festival of Brexit’, a showcase of British technology and innovation that is due to be held in 2022. Intriguingly, Dowden was joined at the meeting by Conservative peer Lord David Brownlow – the man who reportedly contributed to Boris Johnson’s expensive renovation of his Downing Street flat.

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On 11 January, Media and Data Minister John Whittingdale held a meeting with Richard Sharp, who had recently been nominated by the Government as the new BBC Chairman. Sharp was due to be grilled by MPs on 14 January and Whittingdale briefed his candidate ahead of the appearance. Sharp, who has in the past donated more than £400,000 to the Conservative Party, held a total of six meetings with DCMS ministers between January and March.

On 2 March, Whittingdale hosted a summit with a panel of experts advising the Government on its strategic review of public service broadcasting. This panel featured Sir Robbie Gibb, the former director of communications for Prime Minister Theresa May who more recently helped to set up GB News. Sir Robbie has subsequently been appointed to the BBC Board and was joined at the meeting by a non-executive director of Liberty Global – a firm with close ties to the main co-founders of GB News.

The Government is developing policies to clamp down on online hate – an issue that has gained even more pertinence in the wake of the Euro 2020 final and the abuse of several black England players. On 24 February, Whittingdale met with various ‘freedom of expression groups’ to discuss the Government’s proposals – including the Free Speech Union, run by disgraced former Government advisor Toby Young and supported by a number of controversial right-wing figures.

In a meeting that was potentially less comfortable for Whittingdale, the minister met with screenwriters/producers Armando Iannucci, Ronan Bennett, Emma Frost, John Lloyd and Jed Mercurio on 8 March to “discuss the future of public service broadcasting”. Iannucci and Mercurio have pilloried Boris Johnson’s Government in recent months. Whittingdale will no doubt hope that he didn’t unwittingly provide them with any new material.


Media Moguls and Middle East Middle-Men

From January to March, Leader of the Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg only met in an official capacity with three journalists, all from right-wing outlets: Ben Riley-Smith, political editor of the Daily Telegraph; Henry Hill, news editor of ConservativeHome; and Steve Swinford, political editor of The Times.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak was also on the media schmooze – likewise concentrating his attention among right-wing titles. He met with the editors of the Sun, Daily Mail and Telegraph on 25 January and with the editor of The Sunday Times on 26 January for his “regular engagement” with their representatives. The Chancellor also met with Robert Thompson, CEO of NewsCorp and Rebekah Brooks, CEO of News UK, on 26 January. This is not the first time that Sunak has traded pleasantries with Brooks in recent times.

Meetings were once again held between the Chancellor and the editors of the Sun, Daily Mail, Telegraph, The Times and Financial Times on 3 March – and with Kate Andrews of the Spectator on 23 March. Non-right-wing newspapers and broadcasters were not afforded the same access. Sunak’s second-in-command Steve Barclay also held a post-budget webinar with the right-wing pressure group the TaxPayers’ Alliance on 17 March.

Various meetings were similarly held between businesses and Government ministers during this period – led by the Department for International Trade (DIT) and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).

On 4 March, Investment Minister Lord Gerry Grimstone met with Liberty Steel Group to “discuss the company’s business development plans”, and three days later to “understand operational pressures on the business”. Soon after, Liberty Steel reported commercial problems stemming from the relationship between its parent company GFG Alliance and the collapsed financial services company Greensill Capital – the latter of which employed former Prime Minister David Cameron as a lobbyist.

Cabinet Secretary Simon Case met with Cameron on 4 March to “discuss the union”, four days before Greensill filed for insolvency protection. Later that month, it was revealed that Cameron had lobbied senior civil servants and Cabinet ministers about Greensill’s role in Government COVID-19 loan schemes.

David Hencke recently reported for Byline Times that BEIS advisors also put pressure on the independent British Business Bank over these loan schemes, due to the potential impact of Greensill’s collapse on Liberty Steel, which employs several thousand people in metal plants in the UK.

And as revealed by Byline Times earlier this week, Business Minister Nadhim Zahawi met Cameron in March alongside Illumina, a firm that employs the former Prime Minister as an advisor and holds multi-million-pound Government contracts.

DIT records show that unelected Lord Grimstone also met with Qatari official Ali Al Thawadi, who was involved in a controversy surrounding Qatar’s 2022 World Cup bid. Lord Grimstone and Al Thawadi held a summit alongside members of the Al Thani Qatari ruling family, Rolls Royce and Dominic Armstrong – CEO of geopolitical investment fund Horatius Fund – to discuss a potential investment opportunity.

This was one of a series of meetings held between Lord Grimstone and representatives from Qatar. On 14 March, he met with the Qatar Businessman Association to discuss “increased investment into the UK regions” – later meeting with the Qatari Investment Authority to “discuss their continued investment into the UK” and Qatari military research company Barzan Holdings.

Later that month, Lord Grimstone met with Mubadala Investment Company – a sovereign wealth fund strongly connected to Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi. Both Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have attracted human rights concerns in recent years.

DIT ministers also held 13 meetings with the military and aerospace supplier BAE Systems during this three-month period. BAE holds contracts worth billions of pounds with the Government.

Elsewhere in Whitehall, Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch discussed “diversity training” with Musa al-Gharbi – a sociologist who is currently writing a book entitled We Have Never Been Woke: Social Justice Discourse, Inequality and the Rise of a New Elite – and controversial academic Eric Kaufmann.

Meanwhile, Health and Social Care Minister Edward Agar met with former Health Secretary Andrew Lansley on 5 February to discuss the new Health and Care Bill. A day later, the media reported on a leaked document suggesting that Johnson’s Government is planning to reverse the reforms instituted by Lansley, particularly with regards to the competitive tendering of health work.

And Agar’s colleague Lord James Bethell met with the private firm Faculty in March to discuss the “use of [artificial intelligence] in health tech, and the national COVID-19 chest imaging database”. Faculty, which previously worked for the Vote Leave EU Referendum campaign, is currently engaged in Government work worth several millions of pounds – including work on the chest imaging database.

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