Liz Truss’s ‘PopCons’: dark money in plain sight
It’s easy to laugh at the failed PM’s Popular Conservatives, but small groups backed by shady money have already reshaped our world
I bumped into a friend in a local coffee shop the other day. He told me he’d been enjoying this newsletter.
He also had some questions. How did I find stories? And how did I choose the ‘style’ to report them in?
The first question is simple (and complicated!) The stories on Democracy for Sale mostly come from the tools of the investigative journalist’s trade: ferreting out public documents; filing freedom of information requests; finding human sources.
As much as possible, I try to show you the source material for all the stories.
But the second question - the style question - is trickier.
As you’ll probably have noticed, the tone of this newsletter changes quite a bit. Some weeks it’s news. Sometimes it’s comment or analysis. Some weeks it’s all three rolled into one.
So why mix it up so much? Is it because I get bored easily? (I do, but that’s not the reason.)
The short answer is Britain’s appalling libel laws.
Put simply, ‘straight’ news is the safest way to report a story. While I might like to add my own thoughts or opinions to some stories - to tell you exactly why they are so scandalous - to do so often brings serious legal risks.
I would rather Democracy for Sale spent time digging up stories for you than fighting lawsuits. (But for any well-paid defamation lawyers reading: I don’t shy away from the fight if I have to.)
But a lily-livered desire to keep my shirt is not the only reason this newsletter is often written in the ‘inverted pyramid’ of news writing convention.
Some weeks, though, I want both to use investigative tools to bring you important new information and to say a bit more about why what I’ve found is so concerning.
This is one of those weeks.
Like many of you I expect, this week I found myself grimly drawn to ‘the Popular Conservatives’. (For those who missed it, this is new Liz Truss-fronted, Tory ginger group that launched - to much media coverage - in London on Tuesday.)
The whole thing was bizarre, frankly. Jacob Rees-Mogg - an investment banker - railing against Davos man. Truss proclaiming herself the voice of ‘quiet conservatives’. Lee Anderson talking about, eh, coal.
Many column inches were dedicated to the ‘PopCons’, much of it in jest. But one question was often missing: “who is funding this?”
That’s not an easy question to answer. The PopCons don’t have to register with the Electoral Commission or anyone else. But there are some things we can see above the astroturf.
In the UK, it’s really easy to hide political funding - but you do have to say who pays for political messages. The tweet below - from GB News’ politics editor Christopher Hope - is slightly cut off but the full version clearly says that the leaflets were published by something called ‘Popular Development Partners Ltd’ with an address in Kent.
Companies House tells us that Popular Development Partners was set up in October, with two directors: Mark Littlewood and someone called ‘Angela Dawn Mannion’ (who, as the Good Law Project pointed out, seems to have no online footprint at all. Which is not illegal but is pretty unusual.)
Littlewood, on the other hand, is a well-known name. And his involvement with the Popular Conservatives has hardly been a secret.
On the media rounds for ‘Pop Con’, Littlewood was routinely described as the former boss at the ‘free market’ think tank, the Institute of Economic Affairs. That’s true but it's only half the story.
The IEA is the UK’s oldest right-wing think tank. It also has incredible reach. As I reported in December, the IEA had more than 5,000 UK media hits in the last year.
Truss was famously ‘incubated’ by the IEA. During her short spell in Number 10, Truss surrounded herself with Tufton Street alumni, then she tried to put pals in the House of Lords. Littlewood apparently failed vetting but former IEA comms chief Ruth Porter is now in ermine.
Even more importantly, the IEA is a ‘dark money’ think tank. It refuses to name its donors, but has been funded by BP, Big Tobacco and - as Democracy for Sale reported last summer - US funders of climate denial.
So these are people with form when it comes to accepting dark money. And there seems to be plenty of it knocking about.
Later on the day of Pop Con, GB News’s Christopher Hope tweeted that the organisers had ‘raised a small fortune’ from 70 donors and supporters gathered at Jacob Rees-Mogg's house. Thanks to recent changes to election laws made by the Conservative government it’s unlikely any of this money will have to be declared.
There are other sources of cash that we can glimpse.
The New Conservatives group of Tory MPs - which includes PopCon MPs such as Lee Anderson - has received £50,000 from the Legatum Institute Foundation, whose owners bankroll GB News (where Anderson is a paid £100k-a-year as a presenter.)
Truss has also been busy fundraising for ‘staff and office costs to support me with policy’, including £50,000 from Jeremy Hosking, who has been bankrolling the vehemently anti-net zero Reclaim party.
The ex-PM has also become increasingly to the US world of anonymous political funding.
The Heritage Foundation - the hugely influential conservative think tank that has pledged to “institutionalise Trumpism” - invited Truss to Washington last year to deliver its annual lecture in honour of Margaret Thatcher.
Heritage also footed a £15,000 bill for Truss to fly to Switzerland to speak at a cyber security conference in October and a Heritage representative has reportedly been in London for the last week or so meeting like-minded think tanks.
As with last year’s NatCon (which I wrote about here), it’s easy to spot the influence of US culture warriors on Pop Con’s platform of ‘anti-woke’ and climate scepticism. Robert Jenrick is reportedly off to visit Texas’s southern border next week, as a guest of the Republican governor.
There’s signs that other PopCon supporters are using dark money to push their agenda. The Spectator this week quoted a Tory figure saying that the anti-Sunak “movement is attracting funds, even if a lot of people approached think it’s mad.”
Among the roster at Tuesday’s launch was Lord David Frost. The former Brexit minister was the face of last month’s bombshell Telegraph poll that showed the Tories on course for wipeout at the next election under Sunak.
That poll, carried out by YouGov with more than 14,000 respondents, was paid for by Conservative Britain Alliance. Who are they? Nobody knows. The mysterious group has no web presence and is not registered anywhere. All YouGov would say is that Frost was “named as the contact”.
Under British election law, spending that is “intended to influence voting intentions” has to be declared. The Telegraph poll cost an estimated £70,000 - far in excess of spending thresholds - and led days of news coverage. But with the Electoral Commission enfeebled by the government there seems little chance that this funding will ever be declared.
Indeed, paying for opinion polls is becoming an increasingly effective way to shift British politics under the radar.
Last month, Nigel Farage - another PopConer, albeit a more reluctant one - said he might stand in the general election in Clacton after an opinion poll showed he could win. Who funded the poll? Brexit moneybags Arron Banks.
Polling is highly-influential, little-regulated, and ripe for abuse (as Tory peer Lord Hayward recently complained.) It’s no coincidence that the Constitutional Research Group - the shadowy group behind the Democratic Unionist Party’s £435,000 Brexit bung that set me off on the dark money trail seven years ago - also funded a post-Brexit poll that suggested, improbably, that Andrea Leadsom could become prime minister.
It is easy to dismiss things like PopCon and these dark money polls as a bagatelle. Labour is on course for power. Rishi Sunak looks increasingly desperate. Truss’s PopCons have been widely derided.
But this mistakes how hidden influence works. Take the ‘Net Zero Scrutiny Group’. This small group of backbench MPs has railed against climate action for years. In recent months, backed by the UK's right-wing’s press, they’ve had huge success: Sunak has rolled back climate pledges.
Now Keir Starmer has followed suit, this week ditching Labour’s £28bn green investment plan. It’s a bad decision. Climate action is popular with voters. The investment would deliver high quality, well paid jobs.
But Starmer’s retreat also needs to be seen as the grim product of a politics in which small groups of people backed by shady money can wield massively outsized influence on the decisions that affect us all. That’s the real PopCons story.
As the next general election approaches, Democracy for Sale will continue to shine a spotlight on corruption, dark money and hidden influence. If you can, please consider becoming a paid subscriber so I can do more of this work.