Westminster’s former Brexit minister, Chris Heaton-Harris, has been accused of breaching the ministerial code for meeting privately with the far-right Spanish party, Vox, in March.
Vox has been endorsed by former Trump advisor, Steve Bannon, and has pledged to roll back laws against domestic abuse, loosen gun control, oppose equal marriage and build a wall around Spanish territory in Africa. It is one of a number of far-right parties expected to make gains in this week’s European elections.
The Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU) said that Heaton-Harris, who resigned as Brexit minister in April, “did not meet representatives of Vox in a ministerial capacity” and that no government officials were present.
But an investigation by openDemocracy has discovered that the minister discussed Brexit with the far-right representative, raising questions about whether the code governing ministers’ behaviour was breached.
Under the ministerial code, ministers must report any discussions they have with external organisations or individuals about issues related to government business “as soon as possible after the event”.
The Liberal Democrats’ Brexit spokesman, Tom Brake MP, said he will be writing to Prime Minister Theresa May to ask if Heaton-Harris’s meeting with Vox broke the ministerial code.
“Meeting with far-right politicians behind your department’s back sounds like a clear cut breach of the ministerial code,” Brake said.
Transparency International said that the then-Brexit minister’s failure to report the meeting with Vox “gives the impression of impropriety”.
Vox, which entered the Spanish parliament for the first time in April, has been building strong links with right-wing parties across Europe ahead of next week’s European elections. Espinosa de los Montero was in Westminster to forge connections with British Conservatives.
Despite DExEU’s insistence that Heaton-Harris’s meeting was not as minister, Espinosa de los Montero said: “Brexit was the main topic. The purpose of the visit was not Brexit, but Brexit seems to be the main topic in every conversation in British politics.”
The ministerial code also states that ministers’ meetings should be arranged through their departments, with officials present. The Vox meeting was organised not by DExEU but by the European Conservatives and Reformists, the European Parliament grouping which includes the Tory party.
Heaton-Harris was a leading figure in the pro-Brexit European Research Group, led by Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, before becoming a Brexit minister in July 2018. He resigned in opposition to Theresa May’s Brexit deal.
As well as Spanish voters and potential investors, Espinosa de los Montero met with Heaton-Harris and two other Tory MPs aligned with the ERG, Andrew Lewer and Ross Thomson, who represents Aberdeen South.
“We saw three, and all three were Brexiteers,” Espinosa de los Montero said. “It was the first time we ever met and it was a nice, general conversation, not very specific.”
He added: “We like to establish relationships with parties such as the Conservatives, which I think is our natural ally in the UK.”
— Iván (@ivanedlm) March 27, 2019
After a Twitter photograph of Thomson with Espinosa de los Montero prompted criticism, a Scottish Conservative spokesman told The Herald in March that “none of these meetings constitute an endorsement of any views Vox may hold.”
Last month, openDemocracy reported that Vox was a central part of a network of far-right movements across Europe, backed by American and Russian ultraconservatives.
The meeting between Vox and Heaton-Harris is not the first time that discussions involving a Brexit minister and the UK’s departure from the EU have not been recorded in government transparency data.
In 2018 Buzzfeed revealed that another Brexit minister, Steve Baker, frequently met to discuss Brexit with Shanker Singham, a trade lobbyist now at the dark money-funded think tank the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA). These meetings took place outside of office hours, away from the Brexit department and were not disclosed to the public.
Baker was also present at a European Research Group gathering on ‘Reporting Brexit’ and had dinner with an Italian libertarian think tank linked to the IEA. DExEU said that Baker, who resigned in 2018, was present at both events in a personal capacity, and not as a government minister.
It’s an absolute scandal that a Tory MP has been meeting with representatives of a far right party. Matthew McGregor, HOPE not hate
Steve Goodrich, senior researcher office at Transparency International UK, said: “The government’s own rules are clear that when ministers engage external stakeholders on issues relating to official business this should be recorded and made public.
“This is not an obligation they can escape by claiming the meeting was on party or private time. Withholding or failing to report this information only gives the impression of impropriety.”
Liberal Democrat Tom Brake accused Heaton-Harris of “currying favour with Vox”.
“I will be writing to the Prime Minister to ask whether the government supports negotiating with Vox or did minister Heaton-Harris break the ministerial code,” Brake said.
Matthew McGregor, campaigns director, HOPE not hate, said: “It’s an absolute scandal that a Tory MP has been meeting with representatives of a far right party.
“This is a deeply worrying state of affairs and Mr Heaton-Harris and his officials should explain themselves immediately. It’s hard to imagine any sort of justification for a meeting with Spain’s far right party, particularly if it discussed any British government policy.”
DExEU were asked if the department had a record of Heaton-Harris’s meeting with Vox, and if the department would be examining whether a breach of the ministerial code took place.
In response, a DExEU spokesperson said: “The then parliamentary under secretary of state for exiting the European Union, Chris Heaton-Harris, did not meet representatives of Vox in a ministerial capacity and DExEU was not involved in the meeting referenced in the article contained in your request.”
Chris Heaton-Harris has not responded to a request to comment.
A version of this story was published by openDemocracy on 16 May 2019. Additional reporting by Belen Lobos.