Boris Johnson is facing serious questions after it was revealed, as a result of research by Open Britain, that the launch of the controversial IFT think tank in September was subsidised by the Foreign Office.
The event took place in the Map Room at the FCO with speakers including the Foreign Secretary and the International Trade Secretary. Daniel Hannan, the President of the IFT, used the event to call for the government to move towards a Singapore-style economy after Britain leaves the EU.
Since it took place, the Government has repeatedly failed to provide a response to questions about the nature of the event and whether it was consistent with civil service and ministerial rules.
Responding to a question in the House of Commons yesterday by Chris Bryant MP, a leading supporter of Open Britain, the Foreign Secretary stated: “There was no cost to the public purse”. But a letter from the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood, to leading supporter of Open Britain Chuka Umunna MP, suggests this is not true and that, in fact, the FCO cost the taxpayers up to £6,000 of lost income by letting the IFT use one of the most prestigious venues on the Government’s estate – the Foreign Office’s Map Room – for free.
In the letter, Sir Jeremy admits that in hosting the event the FCO had not adhered to the rules enforced by other departments, specifically that any external organisation should pay for room hire and have the support of one of the department’s directorates.
He says that the FCO has subsequently been forced to change its rules so that “non-government organisations must pay a licence fee and secure the support of an FCO Directorate in order to host an event in rooms at the FCO.” He went on to write that “the revised procedures the FCO have now put in place are consistent with practice elsewhere in government.”
New documents published this afternoon show that Sue Gray, the Cabinet Office director general of propriety and ethics, demanded that the IFT should pay a full commercial fee for use of the room, but that the FCO refused to do so.
The fact that FCO staff were working at the event further weakens the Foreign Secretary’s claim that there was no cost to the taxpayer. Following the event Dave Penman, the head of the senior civil servants’ union, the FDA, said “the ministers involved have shown an astonishing lack of judgment in using official government buildings, departmental communication channels and civil servants’ time.”
The revelation is the latest embarrassment for the IFT, which is headed up by Daniel Hannan MEP. The organisation was forced to change its name in December after it was revealed that its original name – the ‘Institute for Free Trade’ – had not been registered with Companies House and was illegitimate, since the organisation does not meet the criteria of an ‘institute’.
Chris Bryant MP, leading supporter of Open Britain, said:
“Boris Johnson was flying by the seat of his pants yesterday. He pretended that he had been completely exonerated, but in fact the Cabinet Secretary has made it clear that the Foreign Office should have charged the IFT for the use of the Map Room in line with the practice across the rest of government.
“The truth is this was a private party going on free of charge on Government premises, using civil service staff and sanctioned by the Foreign Secretary.
“The IFT may seem like a fringe group of whacky fanatics, but the reality is they are highly influential and are pushing a dangerous agenda.”
Chuka Umunna MP, leading supporter for Open Britain, said:
“By bending over backwards to host the launch of Daniel Hannan’s think tank in September, the Government revealed how utterly desperate it is for ideas about how to deliver Brexit.
“As if Boris Johnson launching such an overtly political event on FCO premises was not bad enough, the fact they provided the room for free, contrary to government protocol, is frankly unacceptable. The ideologues running the IFT shouldn’t be given freebies by the Government.
“The Foreign Secretary is trying to make light of this. But pandering to fanatical hard Brexit-supporting ideologues in this way is no laughing matter.”