Downing Street raised concerns about Boris Johnson hosting hard-Brexit think tank event

Foreign Office spared IFT thousands of pounds in room hire, arguing the think tank's stance supports the government's policies

Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Downing Street and the Cabinet Office’s ethics director raised concerns about Boris Johnson’s decision to let a controversial hard-Brexit think tank hold its launch event in Foreign Office rooms for free, documents reveal.

But the Foreign Office decided against retrospectively charging the Initiative for Free Trade (IFT), the think tank, for use of the rooms, arguing that it fulfilled a key plank of government policy by championing global free trade.

Last September the IFT, which is headed by Dan Hannan, held its launch event in the Map Room, part of the Foreign Office’s grand hospitality suites.

Foreign secretary Boris Johnson and trade secretary Liam Fox spoke, and prominent Brexiteers Michael Gove and Penny Mordaunt also attended, the documents show.

Johnson had signed off on £6,000 of lost income caused by giving the IFT use of a room for free. The IFT paid for security and refreshments, emails between officials show.

The Foreign Office worked with the Department for International Trade to coordinate media strategy and send out the press release announcing the launch, and officials also provided “basic logistical support” for the launch.

The IFT, which has close links to arch-conservative US think tanks, has since advocated moving away from the EU’s strict food and environmental standards to secure a free trade deal with the US.

These positions are in apparent contrast to recent assurances from ministers that Brexit will not lead to a weakening of standards. This week Brexit secretary David Davis said the UK would lead a  “global race to the top” in rights and standards, rather than being “plunged into a Mad Max-style world borrowed from dystopian fiction.”

Sue Gray, the Cabinet Office’s ethics director, told officials after the event that the IFT should pay the full commercial rate, the documents show. But Unearthed understands the Cabinet secretary later accepted the Foreign Office’s arguments and decided there hadn’t been a breach of the ministerial, civil service or special advisers’ codes.

A Foreign Office spokesperson said: “The IFT event expressly fulfilled a key objective of HMG [government] policy – the championing of global free trade. Politicians were invited from parties from across the political spectrum, as were a range of other guests (diplomats, think tankers, etc).”

On Wednesday Johnson defended the “blameless” launch event in parliament: “It was fully in line with Foreign and Commonwealth Office rules on hosting such events, and I have here a letter from the Cabinet Secretary to confirm that.”

Read the documents in full here.

Last week, Unearthed reported that the IFT had accidentally published documents outlining plans for an “unprecedented” alliance with conservative US think-tanks. They planned to hold “shadow trade talks” to which they intended to invite British and US officials as observers. The draft brochure advocated ditching strict EU standards, including rules on food and pharmaceuticals, to land a US-UK trade deal.

‘Small change’

The IFT’s launch was held in the Foreign Office at the personal invitation of Boris Johnson, the documents show. In April Daniel Hannan wrote to thank Johnson for his offer of Foreign Office rooms.

“I think this is terrifically important: we want to be visibly supporting the government’s agenda rather than simply being another think-tank… Obviously, we’d want you to speak; no one does it better,” Hannan wrote.

On June 28 a special adviser wrote that the Locarno Suite would be booked in Boris Johnson’s name, noting “the FCO will have lost income on the hire of the room (about £6,000 – I will check the exact figure; small change I know in the big scheme) – is the FS aware of that and content to sign it off?”

A special adviser responded: “He is ok with this.”

The booking was later changed to the Map Room. The emails do not show whether this affected how much income was lost.

The event was announced in a joint press release with the Department for International Trade, with a civil servant from a cross-departmental unit coordinating arrangements.

On September 26, the day before the launch, an unnamed official wrote that Downing Street had been in contact to raise concerns about the event. “They’ve asked specifically why it’s being hosted in the FCO and whether IFT are paying for the room – they’re worried we could come in for some criticism about that.”

A special adviser responded that the event was being hosted under “Ministerial auspices” and so was not charged for, although the think tank covered the cost of food, drink and security. “This is the standard arrangement,” they added.

The Foreign Office and Department for International Trade press offices agreed what to say if journalists asked about the decision.

On September 28, the day after the event, an official whose name is redacted wrote that they had offered to send Sue Gray, the Cabinet Office’s ethics director, some details about the launch.

The decision to host the event in official buildings also attracted criticism from Labour MP Chuka Umunna, who wrote to Johnson on September 27 to ask whether it breached the ministerial code, which bans using government facilities for party political purposes.

Justifying the decision to host the event in draft notes for Gray, the official wrote that the IFT’s goals are “to make the case for free trade; reach out to business groups around the world, including developing countries, to look at ways to eliminate tariff and non-tariff barriers to free trade; and to network across government to promote new trade agreements,” the official wrote. “These seem to be clearly in line with HMG policy,”

In response, Johnson’s permanent private secretary wrote: “Sue Gray is clear that IFT should pay the room fee, at full commercial rate… Can I ask you to liaise with them so that I can confirm to Sue that this is happening by cop [close of play] today?” No response to this question was provided in the documents released to Unearthed.

In a letter to Unearthed, the Foreign Office said it allowed a range of organisations, including think-tanks, to use its buildings, adding: “Where the events supported the Government’s objectives, the FCO’s established practice allowed for a waiver of the room hire charge.”

The department has since changed its policy, and considered whether to retrospectively charge the IFT. But “as the event was held in line with the longstanding FCO policy that applied at the time, it was decided it would not be appropriate to do so,” the Foreign Office wrote.

Unearthed has contacted the IFT for comment. It had not responded at the time of publication.