Boris Johnson’s PR Guru Advising Firm Whose Founder Worked with Vladimir Putin’s Top Energy Crony
A tangled web of influence from Gazprom to the Conservative Party to GB News – at its epicentre is a Tory PR lobbyist who played a key role in Boris Johnson’s leadership campaign
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Downing Street has refused to deny whether Boris Johnson and other Cabinet ministers have remained in contact with a senior Conservative Party lobbyist giving PR advice to a controversial investment firm – the founder of which was praised by sanctioned Russian oligarch and Vladimir Putin ally, Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller.
The lobbyist previously helped Johnson win the leadership of the Conservative Party, and is now involved in redefining its direction by providing PR support for a wide range of Conservative Party groups – including a new effort by rebel ringleader MP Steve Baker to remake the Conservative Party by relaunching the Thatcherite pressure group, ‘Conservative Way Forward’ (CWF).
But perhaps most significantly, Byline Times can reveal that the firm’s billionaire founder, Christopher Chandler, was praised by Alexei Miller – a close ally of Vladimir Putin, following a personal meeting with the Gazprom chief in 2003.
Miller praised Chandler’s investment vehicle at the time, Sovereign Asset Management, for helping “Gazprom to reinforce its position among leading international energy companies”.
In return, Chandler’s brother, Richard Chandler, showered praise on Gazprom for “remarkable progress” that would create “significant shareholder value” and make the Putin-controlled gas giant “a core holding for international investment portfolios”.
At the meeting, Gazprom and the Chandler brothers affirmed their “commitment to common goals”.
Christopher Chandler now holds a controlling stake in GB News, the star TV host of which is former UKIP, ‘Leave.EU’ and Brexit Party politician Nigel Farage. He has defended Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and complained about British sanctions on Russian oligarchs.
From 2010 to 2014, Farage appeared on the state-controlled Russia Today (now RT) channel a total of 17 times. According to RT’s own literature, “he has been known far longer to the RT audience than most of the British electorate”.
Ed Barker is a Conservative communications strategist who provides PR advice for a range of Conservative Party groups – including Steve Baker’s ‘COVID Recovery Group’ and Ben Bradley and Esther McVey’s ‘Blue Collar Conservativism Group’ consisting of 160 members, making it the largest caucus in the Conservative Party.
According to the parliamentary register of interests, Ed Barker is now providing strategic campaign advice to Steve Baker for the “coming relaunch of Conservative Way Forward” – work that is being funded by Neil Record, chairman of the hard-Brexit think tank, the Institute for Economic Affairs.
During its campaign to bring Boris Johnson to power, CWF was controlled by pro-Trump lobbyists involved in an organisation directly linked to Cambridge Analytica, the disgraced data analytics firm that used disinformation to influence the 2016 Donald Trump and Brexit elections. Under Baker’s chairmanship, CWF will now aim to “redefine a free-market conservatism for the future”.
Apart from having played a key role in Johnson’s leadership campaign, Ed Barker also provided PR support to Home Secretary Priti Patel and Brexit Opportunities Minister Jacob Rees-Mogg. In 2019, he stood as a Conservative Party parliamentary candidate for Derby South, for which he received backing from Patel.
Before that, he had masterminded PR for several major hard-Brexit campaigns including ‘Leave Means Leave’ – run by Richard Tice and Nigel Farage – and StandUp4Brexit.
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Barker has also provided PR support for the COVID-19 disinformation lobby network, ‘UsforThem’, which – as Byline Times has previously revealed – works closely with a number of anti-vaccine COVID denial groups such as the HART network.
Since then, Barker has gone on to provide PR support for the Dubai-based Legatum Group founded by Christopher Chandler, a billionaire from New Zealand who made his fortune helping Gazprom become a profitable energy giant under Vladimir Putin’s watch. Barker is simultaneously providing PR support for the Legatum Institute.
Christopher Chandler has claimed that the Legatum Institute operates entirely independently from the Legatum Group.
The role of Boris Johnson’s erstwhile PR guru in running communications for both will raise new questions about the Legatum Group’s control over its supposedly independent think tank, as well as Legatum’s broader relationship with the Conservative Party.
Legatum: From Russia to Brexit
From around late 2021, the websites of both the Legatum Group and the Legatum Institute describe Ed Barker as the main point of contact for media enquiries, with the latter describing Barker as the Legatum Institute’s director of communications.
Some years ago, Legatum Group founder Christopher Chandler came under scrutiny following press stories revealing that he and his brother Richard had made their fortunes in Russia as shareholders in the Russian state-controlled gas giant Gazprom, through their firm Sovereign Global, which also operated as Sovereign Asset Management.
Although Chandler vehemently denies any links with Putin or the Kremlin, the Mail on Sunday found promotional material published by his own brother’s company, Clermont Global, claiming that Sovereign had “teamed up with Putin to launch a management coup at Gazprom”.
According to the Clermont Global brochure, the Chandlers’ firm Sovereign Global had “appointed Boris Fyodorov, Russia’s former minister of finance, to the board of directors of Gazprom”, reported The Times. “But Gazprom’s management resisted change, and so ‘Sovereign appealed directly to President Vladimir Putin’, and a ‘close ally’ of Mr Putin then replaced the chief executive of Gazprom in 2001.”
At the time of the revelations, Legatum denied this account, attributing it to Richard Chandler’s struggle to “recollect events” that had occurred “17 years ago”. Clermont told the Mail that the passages had been written in error using a “shorthand” to describe Sovereign’s engagement with Gazprom.
However, an article published on the Legatum Group’s website in 2018 throws further light on the Chandlers’ intimate involvement in Russia.
Sovereign “saw Russia as a country rich in resources and potential workforce, as aforementioned, but were awake to the fact that continued failure to implement good practice would result in potential catastrophe”, the article said.
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Therefore, Christopher Chandler authored a ‘manifesto’ for Russia titled Seven Steps to Prosperity, “which was circulated among members of the Federal Duma” – a key chamber in the Russian Parliament with one of the highest legislative authorities in Russia. The article does not elaborate on how Chandler was able to exercise political connections in Russia enabling him to circulate a document to Russian law-makers.
The article then provides its own account of Sovereign’s involvement in Gazprom: “Boris Fyodorov continued to encourage Gazprom’s largest shareholder, the Russian state, to take governance reforms seriously. With the Russian State owning around 34% of Gazprom, it was in Putin’s own interest to act, and indeed a change at the top ensued: Alexei Miller replaced Rem Vyakhirev as CEO, and became openly supportive of the minority shareholders’ calls for higher governance standards.”
Alexei Miller, then Putin’s deputy energy minister, has remained Gazprom CEO ever since. He has been targeted by both US and British sanctions.
In January, Putin awarded Miller the title of Hero of Labour of the Russian Federation, with the following message: “Owing to your efforts and the smooth work of Gazprom’s big team, the company is dynamically developing and consolidating its positions in the Russian and world markets.”
Legatum, the Chandlers, and Clement Global have all in recent years denied that Sovereign played a role in the instalment of Miller, a close confidant of Putin, at Gazprom.
However, back in 2006, Richard Chandler gave an extraordinary interview with Institutional Investor magazine, which reported that he had openly claimed credit for “unseating Vyakhirev”.
The article was supplied by the Mail on Sunday as evidence for its reporting during an inquiry by press regulator IPSO, which ended up ruling in the Mail’s favour. The magazine’s account is worth reproducing:
“At the company’s annual general meeting in July 2000, Sovereign and other minority investors succeeded in getting Fyodorov elected to the board over a management candidate. By teaming up with the five government appointees, who were sympathetic to complaints about management abuses following the election of President Vladimir Putin in March 2000, Fyodorov changed the balance of power at Gazprom. In May 2001 the board removed Vyakhirev as chief executive, kicking him upstairs to the largely ceremonial position of chairman, and installed Alexey Miller, then deputy Energy minister, as his replacement. Vyakhirev stepped down a year later, replaced by current chairman Dmitry Medvedev.”
Although this account says nothing about whether the Chandlers’ strategy was executed in direct cahoots with Putin personally, it confirms the extent to which it contributed to Gazprom’s consolidation, which in turn cemented Putin’s grip on power – and on Europe. It was a strategy that paid off handsomely for Sovereign:
“With Miller, a confidant of Putin who remains CEO, stopping much of the transfer pricing, Gazprom’s share price rebounded. Sovereign sold off its stake between late 2002 and mid-2003, posting a 12.5% total return on its investment over nearly four and a half years. It was not the kind of result that the brothers were used to, but in unseating Vyakhirev they had made a point – and saved the fund from a significant loss.”
Even according to the Legatum article, in 2003 the Gazprom chief acknowledged Sovereign’s pivotal role in supporting Gazprom’s consolidation:
“Sovereign’s unwavering support as a long-term shareholder has played a major role in the development and introduction at Gazprom of higher corporate governance standards. This, in turn, has helped Gazprom to reinforce its position among leading international energy companies.”
The Legatum article does not acknowledge, however, that this quote comes directly from a long-forgotten Gazprom press release.
Although Chandler has pointed out that neither he nor his brother had ever personally met Vladimir Putin, the press release confirms that Christopher Chandler and his brother travelled to Moscow on 20 June 2003 to meet personally with Putin confidant Alexei Miller, where they developed a governance plan for Gazprom’s continued global ascension.
The Chandlers received assurances from Miller regarding new measures Gazprom’s board would take to consolidate its position.
“Sovereign is the largest portfolio investor in Gazprom, and has been investing in Russia and Gazprom for almost ten years,” explained the Gazprom document.
At Miller’s meeting with the Chandlers, the document explained, “Alexei Miller assured the representatives of Sovereign Asset Management that… the Management Board of Gazprom would continue work to improve Gazprom’s dividend policies with the aim to increase Gazprom’s attractiveness to investors”.
The Gazprom press release, which carries the title, ‘Gazprom and Sovereign Asset Management affirm commitment to common goals’, also published the following gushing quote from Richard Chandler:
“Gazprom has made remarkable progress in the last two years. However, much remains to be done. We believe that the corporate governance initiatives outlined today will create significant shareholder value and demonstrate that Gazprom is on track to become a core holding for international investment portfolios.”
At the time, The Wall Street Journal noted that the Chandlers’ meeting with Gazprom’s most senior director was unusual: “While the company often has lower-level executives meet with investors, Moscow analysts said a session with Mr. Miller, the CEO, was unusual, testimony to Sovereign’s large stake in the company.”
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The brothers would sell their stake in Gazprom shortly after their personal meeting with the top Putin confidante, following which the brothers split their fortunes in 2006.
That year, Christopher Chandler used some of his fortune to establish the Legatum Group, and in 2007 to fund the Legatum Institute.
Ten years on, it came to light that the Legatum Institute’s economics director Shanker Singham – once listed as an expert for the climate science-denying Heartland Institute – had lobbied then Cabinet ministers Michael Gove and Boris Johnson for a hard-Brexit.
By 2018, the Charity Commission concluded that the Legatum Institute had breached strict regulations banning charities from political activities by publishing its ‘Brexit Inflection Report’, which had failed to provide “balanced, neutral evidence and analysis”. Instead, the Legatum report had promoted “a political view directed towards securing a particular negotiating position”, looking favourably on a hard Brexit outcome.
A Legatum Mouthpiece?
Little more than a year after the Legatum Institute’s politically-charged Brexit report was unpublished from its website after the Charity Commission investigation, All Perspectives Ltd. was founded as the holding company for the upcoming right-wing TV channel GB News.
By 2020, GB News’ first £60 million funders included Legatum. Company records show that, since September 2020, All Perspectives Ltd. was registered with majority control of GB News.
Last year, a spokesperson for GB News, Legatum and the Legatum Institute told Byline Times that the Legatum Institute “plays no part whatsoever in GB News”.
However, since April 2021, company records confirm that All Perspectives Ltd has been overwhelmingly controlled not only by Christopher Chandler but also by two other senior Legatum Group directors including Mark Stoleson, its CEO, and Alan McCormick, chairman of the Legatum Institute Foundation, a founder of the Legatum Institute, and a Legatum Group Partner.
Both Stoleson and McCormick had previously worked under the Chandlers at Sovereign.
GB News’ most popular show is hosted by Nigel Farage, whom Ed Barker had previously advised in providing PR support for his Leave Means Leave campaign.
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Last month, Farage appeared to defend Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on his GB News show, blaming “the NATO policy, the EU policy of ever-expanding eastwards” as a form of poking “the Russian bear with a stick”. Earlier this month, he complained that UK Government sanctions on Russian oligarchs go against “due process”.
Farage’s remarks are consistent with his long record of admiration for Vladimir Putin as a political “operator”. Less well-known is the extent to which his Leave.EU campaign relied heavily on racist propaganda produced by Russian state-backed news agencies like RT and Sputnik.
GB News has also promoted pseudoscientific disinformation around COVID-19 and climate change. It has, for instance, platformed discredited cranks like out-of-work pathologist Clare Craig, affiliated with the anti-vaccine group HART which has attributed COVID-19 deaths to vaccines and supported bizarre conspiracy theories about a global depopulation agenda.
And the channel has platformed guests from the climate science denial lobby group, the Global Warming Policy Foundation, where Steve Baker is a trustee.
GB News shares a lot of ground, in this sense, with RT – which regularly promotes disinformation on Brexit, COVID-19 and climate change. “Anything that causes chaos is RT’s line,” said one RT reporter describing the Kremlin-backed outlet’s decision to give more airtime to Brexit supporters, including Nigel Farage, during the 2016 referendum.
GB News also has direct ties to the Conservative Party. Its original founder and fundraiser is in a business partnership with two independent advisors to Government appointed by Priti Patel.
GB News did not respond to a request for comment.
The opaque set of relationships between Gazprom, the Legatum Group, Legatum Institute, Steve Baker, pseudoscientific disinformation, and a top Conservative aide who once advised Boris Johnson’s leadership campaign – and is now involved in undermining his premiership – raises urgent questions.
Chief among them is how powerful financial interests that saved Gazprom from financial disaster are working to disfigure public discourse and undermine British democracy.
When Byline Times asked Downing Street whether the Prime Minister or other Cabinet ministers have remained in contact with Ed Barker, a spokesperson refused to deny this, referring only to official meetings.
They said: “The Prime Minister and the Government have been resolute in standing up to aggression by the Putin regime and its cronies. All official ministerial meetings with external organisations are published transparently on gov.uk.”
Barker and the institutions he advises – the Legatum Group, the Legatum Institute, Steve Baker’s COVID Recovery Group and Conservative Way Forward, and the Blue Collar Conservatives caucus – did not respond to requests for comment.