American Dark Money, the Mercers and the Conservative PartyA Network of Influence
A special investigation by Nafeez Ahmed exposes the transatlantic connections between an extremist US pro-Trump lobby and organisations influencing Liz Truss’ Conservative Cabinet
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Two powerful Conservative Party pressure groups with extensive financial ties to Liz Truss’ Cabinet have institutional and funding links to the pro-Trump Mercer Family Foundation, Byline Times can reveal.
Robert and Rebekah Mercer are the billionaire philanthropists credited with being among Donald Trump’s biggest financial backers. They have funded a range of far-right groups in America – including white supremacists and supporters of the January 6 Capitol attack. Renowned Republican political strategist Steve Schmidt has described them as among “the chief financiers of the fascist movement”.
In a special investigation, Byline Times has found that six of Liz Truss’ Cabinet appointments have funding ties to Conservative organisations connected to the Mercer lobby. While two of her formal advisors, and two independent advisors involved in shaping ‘Trussonomics’, come from these groups.
The Deputy Prime Minister and Health and Social Care Secretary, the Chancellor, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the Northern Ireland Minister, the Home Secretary, the Justice Secretary, and the Leader of the House – and the Prime Minister herself – all have institutional and financial links to the controversial Mercer lobby.
Liz Truss’ Cabinet appears to be ideologically aligned with some of the most controversial themes of far-right activism in the US, including women’s rights.
The parliamentary register of interests reveals that Thérèse Coffey, now Deputy Prime Minister and Health and Social Care Secretary – who is well-known for her anti-abortion stance – received a number of donations from one of the largest anti-abortion lobbies in the UK, which openly supported the US Supreme Court’s 2022 overturning of Roe versus Wade.
A total of £20,040.14 was donated to Coffey by the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales to fund interns in her parliamentary office from 2017 to 2019. Following the Supreme Court’s decision, it released a statement praising the judgment as the result of “the prayers, dedicated work and commitment of those who seek to protect women who are pregnant and the unborn child”. In its list of ‘further resources’, the statement linked to the UK branch of Rachel’s Vineyard – a US anti-abortion movement which organises hundreds of retreats each year and has played a central role in campaigning against Roe versus Wade in Republican circles for more than a decade.
The Supreme Court’s decision was a direct legacy of Donald Trump’s presidency, who stacked the court with Republican appointees and declared his “great honour” at having made the overturning of Roe versus Wade possible. His donors, Robert and Rebekah Mercer, have funded notable anti-abortion Republican political action committees.
Since taking office, Coffey has claimed that she is “not planning to make any Government changes” to abortion laws.
However her former special advisor – who is now advising Prime Minister Liz Truss on health – previously worked at a Conservative think tank that received funding from the Mercer lobby. Several other Truss ministerial appointees have more well-known links to pro-Trump networks.
In 2017, Jacob Rees-Mogg – Truss’ Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Secretary – met with far-right ideologue and former Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon in America to discuss how conservative movements can win in the US and UK. Bannon was recently convicted of contempt of US Congress.
Byline Times can reveal how Bannon’s involvement with the UK Conservative Party began much earlier – due to the same Mercer lobby – which not only seems to have had some influence over the 2019 Conservative Manifesto, but also the new Truss Cabinet.
The Cherish Freedom Foundation
Last December, Steve Baker – now Truss’ Northern Ireland Minister – became chair of Conservative Way Forward (CWF), a think tank founded by Margaret Thatcher in 1991. The organisation claims that, since 1997, every leadership candidate its members have favoured has been successfully elected prime minister.
Baker’s colleague at CWF – the organisation’s long-time executive director and vice-chairman for around a decade – is Paul Simon Osborn. Although Osborn’s affiliation has not been mentioned on CWF’s website since last December, company records seen by Byline Times confirm that he remains a director of CWF.
Osborn has longstanding ties with Steve Bannon and the Mercers.
Since 2011, Osborn has been a director and vice-president of an obscure Virginia-based non-profit organisation called the Cherish Freedom Foundation, which received extensive funding from the Mercer Family Foundation. US Government Internal Revenue Service (IRS) filings seen by Byline Times show that it received $655,000 from the Mercer Family Foundation between 2013 and 2016.
Byline Times can also reveal that the Cherish Freedom Foundation provided a grant to top Conservative think tank, the Centre for Policy Studies, in 2019 – just months before the General Election.
The CPS was co-founded in 1974 by Thatcher and has been described by watchdog Transparify as one of the least transparent think tanks in the world, due to its refusal to identify its donors.
US Government Internal Revenue Service (IRS) filings show that, on 3 September 2019, the Cherish Freedom Foundation donated $60,000 as a grant to the CPS.
The 2019 Conservative Manifesto was authored by two CPS staffers – Rachel Wolf, who sits on CPS’ board, and CPS director Robert Colvile. The manifesto reflected a raft of CPS policies on tax, housing, welfare and business. It took up recommendations generated from its work with then Home Secretary Priti Patel, Chancellor Rishi Sunak and One Nation Conservative Caucus chair Damian Green. The manifesto contained, according to the CPS itself, “a range of policies advocated by the CPS”.
This funding has never before been declared, raising the question of whether it was lawful under the UK’s election finance rules.
Byline Times’ investigation has identified, for the first time, a financial connection between one of the Conservative Party’s most influential think tanks and the Mercer network – a connection that raises urgent questions about potential ideological influence on the premierships of both Boris Johnson and Liz Truss.
After 2019, Liz Truss gave speeches at the CPS and played a key role in bringing it into the heart of Government decision-making. As International Trade Secretary, she appointed Tom Clougherty, the CPS’ head of tax, to the Government’s Freeports Advisory Panel; as well as Colvile as an expert on the Government’s Strategic Trade Advisory Group.
Now as Prime Minister, Truss’ plan for freeports, which suspend business rates and regulation, are straight from a CPS report published in 2019. Similarly, her plan to eliminate green levies from energy bills also came from the CPS.
In fact, the CPS had a direct hand in Truss’ leadership campaign, with its communications manager, Lauren Maher, seconded to Truss’ campaign team as its senior press officer. Truss’ new health advisor, Caroline Elsom, was also a senior researcher at the CPS.
Robert Colvile told Byline Times that “to the best of my knowledge we have not taken money from or had dealings with the Mercer family, either directly or indirectly”.
However, he did not deny that the CPS received funding from the Cherish Freedom Foundation or provide a response to the foundation’s funding from the Mercer family. He did not explain what the CPS did with the money it received from the Foundation.
“As for my work on the 2019 Conservative Manifesto, it was undertaken in a personal, voluntary and unpaid capacity, and I took a leave of absence from the CPS for the relevant period,” he added. He said nothing about CPS Board member Rachel Wolf’s role in also co-authoring the Tory manifesto.
Meanwhile, Cherish Freedom Foundation’s president is Terence (Donal) Blaney, founder of Griffin Law in the UK. Throughout the 2010s, Osborn and Blaney organised a series of transatlantic gatherings between American right-wing activists and British conservatives under the mantle of the Young Britons Foundation (YBF), which Blaney described as a “Conservative madrasa”.
Blaney’s former law firm – he resigned as a director last year – shares the same registered office address as the YBF and Emerdata Ltd – the company set up to acquire all of the assets of the Mercer-funded data analytics company, Cambridge Analytica, accused of promoting disinformation on Facebook on behalf of the Trump and Brexit campaigns.
In 2013, through the Cherish Freedom Foundation, Osborn convened a YBF event at Churchill College, Cambridge University hosting Bannon with soon-to-be Breitbart London editor Raheem Kassim. Bannon would later tell journalist Peter Geoghegan that this was the year he began frequently visiting the UK and meeting YBF members.
‘Trussonomics’ and Climate Denial
The CPS appears to have had a more direct financial connection to Liz Truss’ leadership campaign.
The parliamentary register of interests reveals that, on 2 August, Truss received £25,000 from CPS chairman, the billionaire City financier, Lord Michael Spencer.
Lord Spencer, who also chairs the Conservative Party Foundation, became chairman of the CPS in 2020, the year after it received a grant from the Cherish Freedom Foundation.
Archived deleted webpages for Conservative Way Forward, dated October 2021, show that Lord Spencer is also a CWF patron. He is therefore connected to both Conservative pressure groups linked to the Mercer lobby.
Two other major Truss appointees are tied to this lobby through Lord Spencer. In April, Lord Spencer’s company, IPGL Ltd, paid £5,000 to Brandon Lewis, Truss’ now Justice Secretary. Lord Spencer also previously gave Truss’ Chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, £7,500 in 2019.
These connections throw further light on how fossil fuel interests overlap with the influence of the Mercer lobby.
Lord Spencer has built his fortune investing in spread betting finance, biometric authentication, data analytics, hedge funds, among other sectors. But last year it emerged that IPGL held a 40% stake in Cluff Energy Africa, which has prospects for oil in west Africa.
While the CPS’ influence on the Truss campaign has been quite direct, the Mercer lobby’s influence has extended across the Truss Cabinet through the CWF group chaired by Steve Baker, Northern Ireland Minister. The result has been a deregulatory economic agenda which appears to serve the interests of climate deniers.
Nadhim Zawahi, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Minister for Intergovernmental Relations and Minister for Equalities – as well as Home Secretary Suella Braverman – participated in CWF’s relaunch last December.
Both Zawahi and Braverman endorsed its publication ‘A Charter for Tax Cuts’ by Julian Jessop, former chief economist at the Institute for Economic Affairs. Although Jessop was not officially part of the Truss team, he is among several economists “closest to the Truss campaign”, according to the Spectator. CPS business researcher Gerard Lyons is also among this group.
In July, Suella Braverman received £10,000 from First Corporate Consultants, founded by British entrepreneur Terence Mordaunt, whose net worth is more than £380 million. Mordaunt is a major Conservative Party donor, and the thirteenth biggest donor to the Brexit campaign. From 2019 to 2021, Mordaunt was chairman of the Global Warming Policy Foundation – a notorious climate denial lobby group funded by fossil fuel interests where CWF chair Steve Baker is also a trustee.
Mordaunt is directly connected to the Mercer lobby – like Lord Michael Spencer, he is a patron of Conservative Way Forward.
Mordaunt connects another Truss appointee to the Mercer lobby. Penny Mordaunt, Truss’ Leader of the House of Commons, received £20,000 from First Corporate Consultants between 2019 and 2021.
The pattern of funding uncovered by this investigation demonstrates the extent to which Conservative policy, and Liz Truss’ Cabinet and ideology, appear to have come under the influence of the Mercer lobby.
The links between the Prime Minister, her ministers, and two Conservative pressure groups with ties to Mercer funding also raise deep questions about how the US far-right could be seeking to shape UK Government policy.
Despite this, Downing Street and the Conservative Party did not respond to Byline Times’ request for comment. This newspaper also received no response from Conservative Way Forward and Paul Simon Osborne.
Robert and Rebekah Mercer’s funding of far-right and libertarian causes is motivated by the goal of destroying the liberal state. “Lenin wanted to destroy the state and that’s my goal too,” Steve Bannon once famously said. “I want to bring everything crashing down and destroy all of today’s establishment.”
The UK’s new Prime Minister and Chancellor co-authored Britannia Unchained in 2012, which railed against the “legacy of a bloated state, high taxes and excessive regulation”. Among its proposals were slashing workers’ rights to give employers greater scope to fire people, eliminating minimum wage obligations for small businesses, and cutting public spending while essentially liberating corporations from every rule in the name of prosperity.
The book may provide some explanation as to why the Mercer lobby would seek to radicalise British conservativism – to fundamentally change the state as we know it, in order to pave the way for extreme right-wing shock therapy.
To what extent is this an ideology which the current Prime Minister and her Cabinet could seek to put into practice now they have the power to do so?