Influential think tanks which do not reveal their donors and blamed as the “driving force” behind the UK’s current “economic disaster” hosted more than 40 events at the Conservative party conference, analysis by The Ferret has found.
Some of the think tanks have been accused of promoting climate change denial, tax havens, and the privatisation of the NHS and BBC, as well as disseminating tobacco and oil industry “propaganda” in schools.
Critics believe the groups are too intertwined with the Tories, and have pushed the party further to the right on various issues including the environment, the economy, and Brexit.
Opposition politicians called the think tanks “shadowy extremists” who are “now at the heart of government and the driving forces behind the economic disaster” in the UK. A Labour MSP told The Ferret that the findings show the Conservatives are in “the pocket of big business, dodgy ‘think tanks’ and shady lobbying organisations”.
The Tories did not reply to a request for comment. Just one think tank – the Institute of Economic Affairs – responded. It said concerns about its funding were “baseless conspiracy” and that it exists to “educate the public about free markets and the institutions of a free society”.
Topics discussed at the 44 conference side events – organised by the Institute of Economic Affairs, TaxPayers’ Alliance, Policy Exchange, the Centre for Policy Studies, and the Adam Smith Institute – included the future of the Tory party, and the UK’s economic, tax and climate policies.
Many of these events were invite only, and included drinks receptions.
The groups have been referred to as “dark money” think tanks because they refuse to reveal who is funding them. However, some have reportedly received funding from the fossil fuel, gambling, sugar and tobacco industries, alongside American trusts with links to Donald Trump’s presidency.
There is no suggestion of any wrongdoing and think tanks have argued that their donors have the right to privacy.
All of the think tanks have close ties to some of the most prominent figures in the Tory party.
The Centre for Policy Studies (CPS) and its online newspaper, CapX, hosted 21 events and featured in a further two.
Among the CPS conference fringe events were two invite-only “breakfast roundtables” discussing the UK’s net zero targets.
Other CPS events included a discussion on how the City of London could “seize the opportunities of Brexit”, a conversation with energy minister, Jacob Rees Mogg, and a debate with Tory politicians on how Margaret Thatcher would deal with the current issues in the UK.
The Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA) held 12 fringe events and its staff featured on a further two.
Mark Littlewood, the IEA’s director general, was filmed undercover in 2018. He offered potential US donors access to government ministers and civil servants, and boasted that his organisation was “in the Brexit influencing game”.
The IEA’s events included an invite-only private drinks reception and sessions entitled “Energy Crisis: Can the UK afford net zero?”, “What is the future of the Conservative Party?” and “How to build a more pro-enterprise economy”.
The longest public appearance of the chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, at the conference – including that of his keynote speech – was an IEA event. Kwarteng co-authored a paper on the “new fiscal rules needed to control government spending” for the IEA in 2012.
The IEA considers both Kwarteng and the prime minister, Liz Truss, as “alumni of IEA initiatives”.
Truss founded its parliamentary wing in 2011 and the IEA’s former communications director ran her successful campaign to become Tory leader. According to Mark Littlewood, Truss has spoken at IEA summits “more than any other politician over the last 12 years”.
The pair co-hosted three joint events, including a debate on free speech. The TPA hosted a further five of its own events.
The Adam Smith Institute and Policy Exchange – whose funding arrangements are similarly opaque – hosted three events each and their staff featured as panellists on a further four.
Influence in Westminster
Other than Policy Exchange, the think tanks are all based on, or near, London’s Tufton Street.
Tufton Street has been dubbed “the most influential address you’ve never heard of” because of the number of think tanks it is home to. Other Tufton Street organisations include groups central to the Brexit campaign and the UK’s most prominent climate science denial organisation.
Liz Truss also has strong ties to Tufton Street. A series of policies adopted by her leadership campaign originated from the think tanks, while she appointed five senior Tufton Street figures as advisers when she entered Downing Street.
The ending of the moratorium on fracking in England had strong support from the think tanks, and Tufton Street was a cheerleader for the government’s recent mini-budget, which has been blamed for the current turmoil in the British economy.
The Truss government is not the first to have close ties with the think tanks, however. Ministers have recorded 26 meetings with the IEA alone since 2012 and Boris Johnson’s cabinet also included a number of figures who have passed through Tufton Street.
Other controversial events
Other official conference events included “Modern conflict: can Britain fight tomorrow’s wars?”, hosted by The Spectator and Palantir – a data-mining defence contractor co-founded by a Trump-supporting tech billionaire.
The Spectator also hosted a session with Amazon, called “How to free Britain from regulatory constraint” and co-hosted a session on “levelling up” with energy firm, Drax. The BBC this week revealed that Drax, which has received billions of pounds in green energy subsidies from UK taxpayers, is cutting down environmentally-important forests in Canada.
Drax was a Tory conference exhibitor, hosted a drinks reception for attendees, and advertised in the conference brochure.
US investment giant, BlackRock, hosted a panel in partnership with “Conservatives in the City”. It was last month accused of failing to protect pension fund clients by threatening to halt trading in certain funds amidst the pension fund panic.
The LGB Alliance exhibited and hosted a session on “Gender Identity Ideology: how can we protect LGB kids?”, while lobbying firm iNHouse hosted four invite only events.
Think tank influence ‘tip of the iceberg’
The Tory party “crashed our economy and left hard working families paying the price; all while they wine and dine with their donors who have made a fortune from economic turmoil,” he claimed.
“We have a Chancellor who goes for dinners with a hedge fund manager that makes his money from shorting the pound, and just hours after his disastrous mini budget he was at a champagne reception with people who had raked it in from the economic measures he had just announced.”
Scottish Greens MSP Ross Greer echoed Sweeney’s view. “Tory party conference really is a who’s who of all the most questionable and reactionary groups,” he said.
“Whether it’s environmental destruction, transphobia or the most aggressive corporate capitalists, it’s telling, although not surprising, that they’re all confident they’ll get their money’s worth out of attending Conservative party conferences.
“Laughably, Liz Truss used her speech to condemn other groups as ‘vested interests dressed up as think tanks’.
“That is an entirely accurate description of the shadowy extremists at the Taxpayers Alliance and Institute of Economic Affairs who are not only all over Tory party conference, they’re now at the heart of government and the driving forces behind the economic disaster she has unleashed.”
Read The Ferret’s coverage of ‘dark money’ here
The IEA’s chief operating officer, Andy Mayer said: “I can confirm that think tanks, trade unions, charities and many other organisations hold events at Party Conferences. Ours are live streamed on YouTube as part of our mission to educate the public about free markets and the institutions of a free society.
“Critics of the IEA, who are always people who disagree with our ideas, have been making the same baseless conspiracy claims for many years. They were tested by the appropriate regulators in 2018/19 and found without merit. Nothing has changed.”
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