Sam Bright unravels the ties between Conservative leadership hopeful Liz Truss and Westminster’s network of opaque libertarian think tanks

Boris Johnson’s premiership of the Conservative Party is dying. It is currently unclear how slowly or quickly the rot is taking hold, but there is little doubt that his political career is on a steep, downward trajectory.

His Downing Street team held multiple parties in breach of lockdown rules both this year and last, some of which were attended by the Prime Minister. The public backlash has been fierce, with focus groups telling former Downing Street pollster James Johnson that the Prime Minister is a “coward”.

“There was something about him that made him a bit more personable to me,” one voter in the focus group said, who backed the Conservatives for the first time in 2019. “It’s gone now, because we’ve lost that trust in him. Now he’s just a buffoon… He can’t be trusted.”

Scenting an opportunity, rivals to Johnson’s throne are now encircling the Prime Minister – preparing their campaigns for the moment when his leadership begins its final descent. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss is a front-runner in this pack, by virtue of her popularity among Conservative Party members.

But Truss also has another crucial constituency of support that may bolster her efforts to seize control of the Conservative Party: for years, she has developed close ties to the ‘Tufton Street network’ – a group of libertarian think tanks and lobbying groups, many of which are opaquely funded, that for years have exerted considerable influence on the policy decisions and the operation of the Tories.

Several of the groups are currently or were formerly based in brick-clad offices along Tufton Street in London’s Westminster, creating an association between a political ideology and the address – as well as suspicions that these libertarian organisations closely coordinate their work.

Tufton Street is much like ‘Fleet Street’ – the former habitat of the newspaper industry. While the titles that were once based there have now scattered across London, ‘Fleet Street’ is still used as a shorthand phrase for the industry – much like ‘Tufton Street’ and the world of libertarian politics.

Indeed, Shahmir Sanni, a Brexit whistleblower who formerly worked within the Tufton Street network, says that these groups regularly held meetings at 55 Tufton Street to “agree on a single set of right-wing talking points” and to “[secure] more exposure to the public”.

These organisations are bound by their support for Brexit – the Vote Leave campaign was originally registered at 55 Tufton Street – and their vigour for low taxes, laissez faire economics, a smaller state, and seemingly close relationship with Liz Truss.


A Thatcherite Revival

Attempting to institutionalise a right-wing political ideology, the Conservative Party has deployed the public appointments system to install sympathetic individuals in prominent government roles.

This strategy has been adopted by Truss, seen actively during her time as International Trade Secretary from July 2019 to September 2021, which involved the awarding of public positions to Tufton Street insiders.

In October 2020, for example, the radical, right-wing website Guido Fawkes gleefully reported that Truss had appointed “a swathe of free market think tankers” to her “refreshed Strategic Trade Advisory Group” – a forum of businesses and academics, which meets regularly to consider the UK’s international trade policies.

These appointments included:

Lord Hannan himself was also appointed as an advisor to the Board of Trade – a commercial body within the Department for International Trade – in September 2020. His Initiative for Free Trade was formerly based at 57 Tufton Street, sharing an office with Colvile’s Centre for Policy Studies, based around the corner from the Institute of Economic Affairs.

Following these appointments to the Strategic Trade Advisory Group, former Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake wrote to Truss, asking whether proper due diligence had taken place in the recruitment process. Brake asked her to explain what additional checks had been carried out on the organisations that employ these individuals – which have a history of failing to declare their donors – to ensure that they are not funded by those “who might be deemed to be agents of a foreign principal”.

Core members of Truss’ own team have also been drawn from the Tufton Street network.

Sophie Jarvis – who previously worked as ‘head of government affairs’ at the Adam Smith Institute – has been a special advisor to Truss at the Department for International Trade and now the Foreign Office. Nerissa Chesterfield, former head of communications at the Institute of Economic Affairs, was also employed as a special advisor to Truss from August 2019 to February 2020 – leaving to work for Rishi Sunak, one of Truss’s main competitors for the Conservative leadership.

Truss has also recently been given responsibility for post-Brexit negotiations with the EU – tasked with ensuring a diplomatic resolutions to various trade disputes. Assisting Truss in this task is Minister of State for Europe Chris Heaton-Harris – who chaired the European Research Group, a network of hard-right Eurosceptic Conservative MPs, from 2010 to 2016.

In August 2019, Truss appointed eight advisors to recommend locations for new, post-Brexit ‘freeports’ – ports where normal tax and customs rules do not apply – two of whom were senior members of Tufton Street think tanks. One was Tom Clougherty – head of tax at the Centre for Policy Studies. Clougherty was previously executive director of the Adam Smith Institute, managing editor at the libertarian Reason Foundation, and senior editor at the Cato Institute – co-founded and part-funded by the Koch brothers, two radical, right-wing American billionaires.

Truss has surrounded herself with Tufton Street figures, with her departments often relying on their policy advice. She and her ministers held a swathe of official meetings with representatives of Tufton Street think tanks and lobbying groups during her time at the Department for International Trade, departmental records show.

Controversially, two meetings between the Institute of Economic Affairs and Truss were removed from departmental records in August 2020 – justified on the basis that they were personal rather than official meetings. Labour accused Truss of appearing to be evading rules designed to ensure integrity, transparency and honesty in public office, and the records were subsequently reinstated.

It was also revealed in December 2018 that Truss met with five American libertarian groups during a visit to Washington D.C. that cost taxpayers more than £5,000. The organisations included:

  • The Heritage Foundation, a Donald Trump-linked think tank with ties to Rebekah Mercer, the major Republican funder who has invested in Breitbart, Cambridge Analytica and Parler
  • The American Enterprise Institute, a neo-conservative think tank
  • The American Legislative Exchange Council, a right-wing lobbying group funded by corporations that advises law-makers across America
  • Americans for Tax Reform, a low-tax advocacy group
  • The Cato Institute

The majority of these organisations have been closely associated with climate change denial or policies that obstruct efforts to address climate change and its effects.

Americans for Tax Reform belongs to an “international coalition of anti-tax, free-market campaign groups called the World Taxpayers Associations,” according to DeSmog. This includes the TaxPayers’ Alliance – an influential UK libertarian pressure group founded by Matthew Elliot, who was the CEO of the Vote Leave EU Referendum campaign.

Elliott, an authoritative figure on the right, reserved special praise for Truss after an event hosted by Policy Exchange in September 2021, in which they both participated. Truss was on “great form”, he said, “outlining a bold, exciting vision for how boosting international trade benefits UK consumers and workers across the country.”

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Truss, along with a number of her colleagues, recently signed up as a parliamentary supporter of the Free Market Forum – a new free market project launched by the Institute of Economic Affairs and advised by Elliott.

The MP for South West Norfolk since 2010, she is viewed widely as a political chameleon – a former Liberal Democrat and a supporter of the Remain campaign in 2016 – but her libertarian convictions have been evident since entering Parliament in 2010.

At the September 2021 Policy Exchange event, the Oxford University graduate emphasised her desire to “[champion] open markets and free enterprise”, saying that “protectionism is no way to protect people’s living standards”. This could well have been a veiled swipe at her boss, Boris Johnson, who has been seen as an interventionist Prime Minister – using state spending and powers to achieve his political objectives, and raising taxes as a result.

“At this critical time, we need trade to curb any rise in the cost of living through the power of economic openness,” Truss added.

These sentiments chime with the attitudes of the Tufton Street network, establishing Truss as the Thatcherite contender in the upcoming Conservative leadership contest – whenever it may take place.

Johnson has authoritarian instincts, and is certainly not a moderate Prime Minister. However, whichever direction the Conservative Party takes in the post-Johnson era, it seems likely to be more radical – particularly in relation to economics. Truss, as the Tufton Street candidate, represents the sharp end of this spear.

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