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The Tufton Street Elite Takes Back Control of the Brexit Project

The libertarian ideologues in Downing Street are taking a hammer to Boris Johnson’s Brexit coalition, says Sam Bright

Tufton Street in London’s Westminster. Photo: Michael Foley/Alamy

The Tufton Street EliteTakes Back Control of the Brexit Project

The libertarian ideologues in Downing Street are taking a hammer to Boris Johnson’s Brexit coalition, says Sam Bright

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Seventeen million votes were cast in favour of Britain’s departure from the EU in 2016 – a seismic event that has reframed British politics, even if it was a decision taken by a minority (37.4%) of eligible voters.

Within this sprawling coalition – 3.4 million more people supported Vote Leave than voted for the Conservatives in 2019 – were a number of internal contradictions, none more so than in relation to economics.

While Brexit voters are relatively united on social issues – Lord Michael Ashcroft’s poll of more than 12,000 people in the wake of the result showed relative harmony on the subjects of immigration, multiculturalism and liberalism (shown below) – they are not as symphonic on economic questions.

Photo: Lord Ashcroft

Leave voters were almost equally split on the question of whether capitalism is a force for good or ill, with 51% opting for the latter and 49% for the former. The 2016 British Social Attitudes Survey further reinforced this, showing how 55% of the most left-wing people in Britain voted to leave the EU, little different from the 48% figure among the most right-wing people.

In popular debate, Brexit has primarily been framed as a rebellion of ‘left-behind’ voters in former industrial areas. This of course has more than a kernel of truth – and was amplified by the shock of current and former Labour areas deciding to ally with Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. However, while the ‘Red Wall’ narrative is compelling, it is an incomplete version of events. 

The south-east delivered the largest proportion of Leave voters – 15% of the national vote – and there were 4.1 million Brexit voters in London and the south-east, compared to a marginally higher 4.3 million in the north of England.

Brexit is an awkward alliance of small-state Thatcherites in the home counties who supported Brexit because they believe in the free market, and less affluent Red Wall voters who desire the state-led regeneration of their areas and local services.

As Deborah Mattinson, Keir Starmer’s director of strategy, argues in Beyond the Red Wall, Brexit promised to “bring the weaving sheds back into use in Accrington, reopen the mills, extend Darlington station, improve transport links across the whole of the north, create youth clubs and training opportunities, get us making things again. And growing things. And fishing things”.

This latter vision has, until now, been the dominant expression of Brexit in public debate and policy-making. Though the luminaries of Brexit – the likes of Daniel Hannan, Douglas Carswell and Matthew Elliott – are all disciples of a libertarian, small-state mindset, they have until now been drowned out by Boris Johnson’s interventionist rhetoric, promising “£350 million a week for the NHS”.

Johnson’s bluster and the cynical yet unifying anti-immigration tenor of the Brexit campaign, allowed him to ride the two horses, leading a critical mass of left-wing and right-wing Brexiters to water.

By contrast, the motif of Brexit among the libertarian crowd was the creation of ‘Singapore-on-Thames’ – slashing red tape and taxes in an effort to boost corporate investment, ostensibly emulating the south-east Asian nation. “If we are to thrive, our post-Brexit model should exactly be Singapore, a tiny country devoid of natural resources, but with a booming economy,” right-wing Brexiter Owen Paterson observed in November 2017.

Believing in the moral and economic superiority of free trade, these libertarian Brexiters were even relaxed on the subject of immigration. In the wake of the Johnson Government announcing a stricter, ‘points-based’ immigration system, the free market think tank, the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), said that “by deliberately focusing on limiting low-skilled migration, the scheme is likely to have a significant negative impact on staffing levels in many industries, including the care system, construction and hospitality, especially in the short-term”.

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However, as Johnson led the Leave campaign to an unlikely victory and himself into Downing Street, the libertarian ideology remained broadly in remission.

Masterminded by Dominic Cummings, the 2019 General Election provided further fuel for Johnson and his left-leaning version of Brexit, with the Prime Minister famously promising to deliver 40 new hospitals, 50,000 more nurses and ‘level-up’ left-behind areas of the UK.

The libertarian wing, sated by Johnson’s electoral success, didn’t put up much of a fight – choosing instead to cultivate new allies. Chief among this cohort was Liz Truss, who confederated with the Tufton Street think tanks – the influential, opaquely-funded pressure groups that advocate a radical free-market ethos – during her time as International Trade Secretary.

In October 2020, Guido Fawkes 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: Mark Littlewood, the director general of the IEA; Matt Kilcoyne, former senior staff member at the Adam Smith Institute and currently a director at the Initiative for Free Trade, founded by Daniel Hannan; and Robert Colvile, director of the Centre for Policy Studies.

Hannan himself was 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.


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‘Britain is Now their Laboratory’

And so, after Truss’ recent elevation to the top job, this Tufton Street elite has a new HQ – 10 Downing Street. IEA director general Littlewood told Politico that Truss had spoken at IEA events more than “any other politician over the past 12 years”, and the new Prime Minister has begun to execute the agenda of her ideological tutors.

This was on display during Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng’s ‘mini budget’ last Friday, announcing an income tax cut for those earning more than £150,000 a year, a reversal of corporation tax and national insurance rises, cuts to stamp duty, and the introduction of low-tax, low-regulation zones across the country.

As former Downing Street advisor Tim Montgomerie said in the wake of Kwarteng’s statement, this was “a massive moment” for the IEA. “They’ve been advocating these policies for years,” he wrote. “They incubated Truss and Kwarteng during their early years as MPs. Britain is now their laboratory.”

As Byline Times has previously revealed, at least five of Truss’ closest advisors are Tufton Street alumni – including her chief economic advisor – while six Cabinet ministers have links to radical right-wing lobbying groups in the US.

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The economic theory behind these policies is to boost the income of supposed ‘wealth generators’ who will be able to invest and spend more – ultimately growing the size of the economy and increasing tax revenues. It is also hoped that diminished financial and bureaucratic restrictions on planning will increase the supply of homes and physical infrastructure.

This is an economic package borrowing from the most radical strain of right-wing thought; a clear departure from the Johnson era of state spending and (attempted) regional redistribution.

As a result of the tax measures outlined on Friday, the Government is effectively handing £1 billion to just 2,500 people, each of whom have an income in excess of £3.5 million. People earning £1 million a year will benefit by £55,000 a year – twice the average UK salary.

Households in London and the south-east are set to gain three times as much on average (£1,600) as those living in Wales, the north-east of England and Yorkshire (£500) next year. And a 50-year-old earning £1 million a year will have a lower marginal tax rate than a 28-year-old earning £50,000 (largely due to the latter’s student loan repayments).

Truss has even shown an affinity with the IEA’s liberal attitude to immigration, with reports over the weekend suggesting that the Prime Minister will introduce measures to incentivise the hiring of overseas workers in order to boost economic performance.

In just a fortnight, Truss and Kwarteng have dismantled the political project forged by Boris Johnson since 2016 – abandoning even the vague illusion of state redistribution promised by the former Prime Minister. Instead, the Tufton Street elite has been given the first opportunity to test its radical Singaporean theories. And we’re all the guinea pigs.

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