The rebel Tory MP sits in the middle of hard-right lobby networks on climate change and the pandemic linked to Cambridge Analytica, reveal Nafeez Ahmed and Peter Jukes 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is about to get eaten by his own creators. 

Steven Baker MP, the Conservative MP for Wycombe leading the charge against new mask and vaccine mandates is spearheading his new rebellion – that some believe could unseat Boris Johnson’s premiership – through an organisation with little-known ties to Robert and Rebekah Mercer, Steve Bannon and Cambridge Analytica, documents seen by Byline Times exclusively reveal. These are the very same forces that helped propel Johnson into power.

The self-styled ‘Brexit hardman’ and former Brexit minister has been the most vocal Tory MP to announce his intention to vote against anti-Covid protective measures in parliament and is the ringleader of a group of around 80 MPs so far. The Spectator has claimed that around 10 ministerial aides are on ‘resignation watch’.

Baker has previously led successful Tory rebellions against sitting prime ministers resulting in major Government and policy changes.  

He now sits within a cross-section of anti-science disinformation networks – receiving donations from the murky ‘Recovery Alliance’, a nexus of pro-Trump anti-vaxxer conspiracy theorists with links to the Koch-backed Great Barrington Declaration, and acting as trustee for the notorious climate science-denying Global Warming Policy Foundation. 


Freedom?

His latest rearguard action is taking place through the relaunch of Conservative Way Forward (CWF), a Thatcherite pressure group. The organisation has boasted that in all leadership elections since 1997, candidates most favoured by its members have ultimately won – including Boris Johnson. 

As Conservative Way Forward’s new chair, Baker said that he would campaign to “celebrate conservatism, promote freedom under law [and] make the case for practical policies that prioritise personal responsibility”. He is now leading what will be the biggest revolt of his premiership, one that is likely to keep growing.

Baker’s vision is nothing less than the remaking of the Conservative Party. “I’m looking at a party which is going in the wrong direction, and I’m looking at building an organisation that will provide a vehicle to unleash the potential of the United Kingdom and redefine a free-market conservatism for the future”, Baker told the Sunday Times

This agenda seems to have little to do with protecting fundamental freedoms – Baker supported the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill which gives extraordinary powers to criminalise peaceful freedom of association, freedom of speech and freedom of protest; and the Nationality and Borders Bill which will allow Government to unilaterally dissolve citizenship rights for as many as two of five ethnic minorities in Britain. 


Freedom: Bought and Paid For by the Mercers

But Byline Times can exclusively reveal that Baker’s new political campaign vehicle has been controlled by pro-Trump lobbyists involved in an organisation directly linked to Cambridge Analytica and bankrolled by Robert and Rebekah Mercer to the tune of at least $655,000. The relationship raises stark questions about the current direction of the Tory rebellion, and whose interests it really represents.

Since 2015, Conservative Way Forward’s executive director and vice-chairman has been Paul Simon Osborn, a Tory councillor in Harrow. Yet according to his register of interests at Harrow Council, between 2013 and 2018, Osborn was involved in several key pro-Trump lobby groups, one of which was funded by Rebekah Mercer. 

Harrow Council’s Register of disclosable pecuniary interests and dispensations identifies an organisation called Cherish Freedom, located at an address in Kent, as Osborn’s chief employer in 2013. 

Cherish Freedom is a UK-registered non-profit company with direct links to Cambridge Analytica, the disgraced data analytics firm which was accused of planting fake news to influence elections. From 2015 until 2019, one of its directors was Conor Burns MP, currently Boris Johnson’s Minister of State for Northern Ireland. Burns was previously Minister of State for Trade Policy and from 2017 to 2018, he worked as Johnson’s parliamentary private secretary during his stint as foreign secretary. 

The UK limited company is the political campaign arm of a registered charity, Cherish Freedom Trust. Burns was previously a trustee of Cherish Freedom until he left in 2019 in the wake of a Charity Commission investigation. According to The Times, it was supposed to be raising funds to build a ‘Margaret Thatcher Centre’ to record her life and public achievements, which instead were spent on “events, consultants and fees” as well as “a transatlantic exchange programme for students, including sightseeing and political briefings.”

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Both Cherish Freedom’s charitable and corporate entities in Britain are managed by Terence William Donal Blaney, as a trustee and director respectively. Yet Blaney is the founder of Griffin Law, which is also the registered office address for both Cherish Freedom and Emerdata Ltd – the company reportedly set up to acquire all the assets of the disgraced data analytics companies, Cambridge Analytica and SCL.

Yet Conservative Way Forward’s connections to this nexus did not end in 2013. American company records including US Government Internal Revenue Service (IRS) filings seen by Byline Times confirm that its director, Paul Osborn, is a longtime vice president of the Cherish Freedom Foundation, incorporated in Virginia as early as 2011. Terence Blaney of Griffin Law is president. Both have been involved in the American foundation, which funds its UK charity, since inception.

The IRS filings also reveal that every year from 2013 to 2016, under Osborn’s leadership, the Cherish Freedom Foundation received grants from the Mercer Family Foundation run by Cambridge Analytica’s main investor, US hedge fund manager billionaire Robert Mercer, along with his daughter Rebekah. The Mercers gave Cherish Freedom a total of $655,000 according to the IRS filings.

In this same period, the Mercer Family Foundation funneled millions of dollars to Steve Bannon, former editor of Breitbart News who went on to become Donald Trump’s chief strategist. The Foundation also spent millions on funding climate science denial through right-wing groups such as the Heartland Institute, the Manhattan Institute, the Heritage Foundation, among many others. 


Who Made Boris Johnson?

Conservative Way Forward’s executive director and vice-chairman was also, according to his declaration of interests for Harrow Council, director of strategy for the Young Britons Foundation (YBF); a member of the Heritage Foundation’s Young President’s Club, and a member of the oldest Republican Party lobby network, the American Conservative Union – which organises the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).

According to YBF’s LinkedIn page, Young Britons Foundation and YBF are merely “trading names of Cherish Freedom”. Self-described as a ‘Conservative Madrasa’, the YBF was a youth insurgency movement within the Conservative Party and the right in general. But it was never a home-grown movement. The YBF was an offshoot of the Young Americas Foundation (YAF), based at the Reagan Ranch in California, which itself relied heavily on funding from Robert Mercer.

In 2013, the only year that Conservative Way Forward director Paul Osborn acknowledges his interest in Cherish Freedom, the sister group YAF was flying delegates over to Cambridge University for a YBF 2013 Special Relationship Scholarship programme, organised by Osborn. At the panel session, Steve Bannon shared a stage with Raheem Kassam, then campaigns manager for the Henry Jackson Society who later became Nigel Farage’s campaign chief before becoming Bannon’s podcast co-host. 

For some years, Boris Johnson had been seen by the Cherish Freedom nexus as a preferred choice for the next Tory leader. That was reflected in 2018, when Conservative Way Forward hosted a gathering of 100 Tory MPs, under its new chairmanship by Connor Burns. Eight Cabinet ministers were also present, including two incumbents, health secretary Sajid Javid and communities secretary Michael Gove. Boris Johnson, Burns’ boss as foreign secretary, was the keynote speaker. A few months later, in September, Leave.EU co-founder Arron Banks would become CWF’s treasurer. 

The Mercer-backed Cherish Freedom nexus thus appears to have played a crucial role in securing Boris Johnson’s political victory.

As of 2018, the entries identifying Paul Osborn’s trans-Atlantic ties were removed from his local authority declaration of interests. This is despite the fact that his connection to the Cherish Freedom Foundation was active that very year. The role of Cherish Freedom in acting as a trans-Atlantic bridge between the Mercers and the election of Boris Johnson raises new questions about disinformation funded by far-right Republicans interfering in British democratic processes.

Now Steve Baker’s latest drive to lead a new Conservative rebellion is mobilising through the same pressure group run under a trans-Atlantic pro-Trump lobby network funded by the Mercers. 

Far from representing democracy and freedom, Baker’s anti-Johnson rebellion as the CWF’s new chair seems little more than a vehicle for anti-science disinformation – an opportunistic drive to capitalise on the coming downfall of the man it was instrumental in electing just two years ago. CWF’s relaunch raises urgent questions about the interests, agenda – and trans-Atlantic ties – of this new effort to, once again, rebrand British conservativism. 

Paul Osborn and Steve Baker were contacted for comment.

But the politics that Baker represents is not fit for the twenty-first century. Buried in grotesque and conspiratorial denialism on everything from Covid to climate change, the interests that Baker’s political lobbying speaks for offer no meaningful solutions to the complex global challenges facing Britain and the world: only an Ostrich-like ideological ‘laissez faire’ fanaticism that is doomed to endlessly repeat the ignorant mistakes of an arrogant past. 

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