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COP28 wraps up in Dubai this week. Reports suggest the draft agreement has dropped references to a phase out of fossil fuels after opposition from oil and gas-producing countries led by Saudi Arabia.
That this COP has been marked by an unprecedented lobbying blitz has been much commented on in the British press. But I was surprised to see little mention of an inconvenient truth for British politics: that former cabinet ministers – and even prime ministers – have been paid millions for ‘advice’’ by many of the oil-rich Gulf governments that stridently oppose phasing out fossil fuels.
Let’s start with Lord Philip Hammond. Theresa May’s chancellor formed his own consultancy firm, Matrix Partners, two months after stepping down from government in 2019.
Matrix Partners recorded profits of at least £990,000 in the two years to March 2022. Hammond has been paid at least £275,000 by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and £68,000 by Bahrain – although the real sums will likely be much higher as these figures are for 2021/22 only.
A spokeswoman for Hammond pointed out to me, correctly, that he has been advising the Saudi Ministry of Finance – but the Saudi economy is driven by oil revenues.
Hammond has emerged as a vocal critical of the UK’s net zero commitments, which would see a drastic reduction in fossil fuel consumption. In August, he told The Sun that ministers had been dishonest about the cost of the energy transition, writing that “a pound spent on decarbonisation cannot be spent on something else.” (Evidently The Sun’s fact-checkers missed the Oxford University study last year that found transitioning to a decarbonised energy system would save the world $12trillion by 2050.)
Hammond said to be one of the wealthiest parliamentarians, has rejected criticism of his work for autocratic regimes. “If change is heading in the right direction, which I’m absolutely clear it is in Saudi Arabia, then I think we should encourage that change,” he told The Times at the weekend.
It is incredibly easy for senior British politicians and civil servants to swap government offices for consultancy retainers.
In theory, ex-ministers have to register with the Office of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments if they take up any new paid or unpaid work within two years of leaving office – but even Acoba’s chief, ex-Tory MP Eric Pickles, admits the body is toothless.
When Philip Hammond told Acoba that he would be working for Mohammad Bin Salman’s regime, the Whitehall watchdog noted that the former chancellor’s inside knowledge of the UK government “could be perceived to offer an unfair advantage” – but approved it all the same.
In 2021, Acoba did find that Hammond had used his government connections to lobby for a bank he is paid to advise – but all it could do was write a strongly-worded letter. Hardly a great deterrent for rule breakers.
Hammond is not the only senior British political figure to move into consulting for unsavoury characters.
Nadhim Zahawi was a guest of the United Arab Emirates at COP28. The (briefly) former chancellor was reportedly acting as an “intermediary” between the UAE and the Barclay family as it seeks to regain control of the Telegraph Media Group – a role Zahawi failed to declare to the benighted Acoba.
Elsewhere, former Conservative cabinet office minister Francis Maude advises the governments of oil rich Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kazakhstan through his consultancy firm.
Francis Maude Associates and Partners (FMAP) Ltd – which lists 35 employees in company accounts released last month – has a number of former Tory ministers as senior advisors including Nicholas Soames, Nick Boles and Nick Hurd as well as the former chair of the Office for Budget Responsibility, Robert Chote and former British ambassador to Saudi Arabia Simon Collis. Maude’s former colleague Philip Hammond has also been a senior advisor at FMAP.
Although FMAP “does not undertake work for the UK government or seek to do so”, the firm has strong links to the heart of power in Britain.
Shortly after stepping down as Boris Johnson’s deputy chief of staff last year, former FMAP founder Conservative peer Simone Finn returned to the firm, which she co-owns with Maude.
The Tony Blair Institute remains very active in the Middle East. Its most recent company accounts talk of working “closely with the Egyptian government’s ministry” at COP28 and of “supporting governments” when “the baton passes from Egypt to the United Arab Emirates in 2023.”
The Tony Blair Institute declined to say if it had been advising the UAE at COP28 – where Blair met Rishi Sunak – but said that “Mr Blair has no personal consultancy with any country, whether in the Middle East or anywhere else. Nor does he take a fee from any country with which the Institute works.”
Politicians don’t necessarily need to set up their own consultancies to work with oil rich Gulf states. The Sir Bani Yas Forum, which meets annually in the UAE to discuss issues facing the Middle East, does not release names of its agenda or its participants but Blair has attended and former foreign secretary David Milliband was paid at least £60,000 to sit on the Forum’s advisory board while he was an MP.
In 2021, then chair of the Defence Select Committee Tobias Ellwood declared more than £8,500 from the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs to pay for a trip to attend the Sir Bani Yas Forum.
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Sue Hawley, executive director of Spotlight on Corruption, said that “there are legitimate questions as to whether former Prime Ministers and Chancellors should face much longer lobbying bans and bans on lobbying for foreign governments.
“Current record levels of public distrust in politicians are being fuelled by the perception that former ministers get to line their pockets after leaving government. It is clear that the regulation of the UK’s revolving door is broken.”
Just as Rishi Sunak was busy making Westminster’s most notorious prime minister-cum-lobbyist David Cameron his new foreign minister, another Conservative MP was preparing jump on the consultancy bandwagon.
Longtime chair of the 1922 committee of backbench Tory MPs, Graham Brady declared that he had set up a consulting firm in the most recent Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
Graham Brady Consulting Ltd is not trading (yet) but earlier this year Brady – who is standing down at the next election – hit the headlines when he told an undercover reporter from the campaign group Led By Donkeys that he would be willing to advise a fake foreign firm. Brady said that a rate of about £6,000 a day “feels about right” – but did make clear that any payments would be on the public record.