Matthew and Sarah Elliott: How a UK Power Couple Links US Libertarians and Fossil Fuel Lobbyists to Brexit

Read time: 27 mins
The Elliotts network map

If you have detected a distinctly American flavour to the rampant lobbying in Westminster corridors over a Brexit deal, there is a good reason why.

A close look at the transatlantic connections of the London-based groups pushing for the most deregulated form of Brexit reveals strong ties to major US libertarian influencers. These include fossil fuel magnates the Koch brothers — known for funding climate science denial around the world — and the man who bankrolled Donald Trump’s campaign, Robert Mercer.

At the heart of this network lies a little-known power couple, Matthew and Sarah Elliott. Together, the husband and wife team connect senior members of the Leave campaign and groups pushing a libertarian free-market ideology from offices in Westminster’s Tufton Street to major US libertarian lobbyists and funders.

Collectively, the network aims to use Brexit as an opportunity to slash regulations in the UK, paving the way for a wide-ranging US-UK free-trade deal that could have disastrous consequences for the environment.

The current draft withdrawal agreement appears to try and provide some protection for the current level of environmental regulation — at least in principle. But politicians associated with this transatlantic network are lobbying hard for the draft deal to be scrapped, along with those protections.

This DeSmog UK investigation reveals the strength of the ties between Matthew and Sarah Elliott, UK lobbyists and politicians, and US groups with vested interests in fossil fuels keen to profit from deregulation.

It shows how organisations with strong ties to the Koch Brothers and Robert Mercer increased their political activities in the UK immediately before and after the Brexit referendum.

And it uncovers US libertarian spending patterns that show increased resources flowing into Europe prior to and around the time of the Brexit referendum, as pro-Brexit groups with ties to the Elliotts in the UK saw their budgets balloon.  


1. A Transatlatic Power Couple: Who are Matthew and Sarah Elliott?

2. Robert Mercer, Cambridge Analytica and Data Wars

3. The 'Kochtopus', US Libertarians, and Brexit

4. The End Game: Environmental Deregulation


A Transatlantic Power Couple: Who are Matthew and Sarah Elliott?

Matthew Elliott has been credited for being “the brains behind Brexit” and “one of the most formidable political strategists in Westminster”. Sarah Elliott is a vocal Trump supporter, with a long history of working for US libertarian figureheads such as fossil fuel magnates, the Koch brothers.  

While Matthew Elliott has attracted public attention as the founder of the TaxPayers’ Alliance and the chief executive of the Vote Leave campaign, his wife Sarah Elliott has only just started to make public appearances.

Together, they form a bridge between the UK’s pro-Brexit lobby groups based in and around offices in Tufton Street and major US libertarian influencers.

From Campaigns for Low Tax to a Wedding

A long-standing libertarian, Matthew Elliott rose to prominence on the UK political stage through the Vote Leave campaign. Yet his campaign efforts advocating a small state and low regulation go back much further, and were largely influenced by American neo-conservative politics.

He was a member of the Young Britons’ Foundation (YBF), a controversial Tory party affiliate which made the news after one of its alumni, Mark Clarke, was accused of bullying young activist Elliott Johnson, who took his own life. Clarke denied the allegations.

The now-defunct group’s radical views earned it its reputation as a “Tory madrasa” used to teach young Conservatives political “dark arts”.

In 2004, Matthew Elliott founded the TaxPayers’ Alliance, a campaign group pushing for low tax and low regulation. He told DeSmog UK that he has “had no formal involvement with the TaxPayers' Alliance” since he stepped down as a director in 2015.

Taxpayers’ Alliance was modelled on a similar campaign in the US —  Americans for Tax Reform.  In a 2017 speech to the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a US right-wing think tank, Matthew Elliott told the Michigan audience he felt like he was “coming home”.

He revealed that he had been coming to the US “for over 14 years to learn my campaign techniques and to learn how to set up a new taxpayer group from Grover Norquist and the Americans for Tax Reform”.

Norquist is the founder and president of Americans for Tax Reform. While the group does not disclose its donors, Norquist is known to have received money from a network of major Republican supporters including Koch Family Foundations, which are funded by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch.

The brothers are co-owners of one of the US’s largest energy companies, Koch Industries, and are known for funding climate science denial. Americans for Tax Reform has also repeatedly opposed a carbon tax and promoted climate science denial, arguing that the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was causing a “global cooling”.

During his time working with Americans for Tax Reform, Matthew Elliott met Sarah Smith, his future wife. Now known as Sarah Elliott, she is an American citizen who spent many years lobbying for hardline Republican values in Washington DC. The couple now lives in London.

Norquist introduced the pair when Sarah Elliott was managing political research at the Americans for Tax Reform between 2005 and 2008.

A Tea Party supporter from Virginia, Sarah Elliott is the current chairwoman of Republicans Overseas, a political organisation that aims to support and represent the interest of American citizens living in the UK.

She is an ardent defender of the Trump administration, a keen Brexit supporter, and an advocate for a US-UK free-trade deal. She told DeSmog UK that Republicans Overseas “has had nothing to do with Brexit”.

In 2005, Sarah Elliott worked for the Republican National Committee's major donor programme — building relationships with some of the biggest funders of the Republican party in the US.

She later spent three years managing fundraising affairs for Americans for Prosperity, a US right-wing libertarian campaign group co-founded and funded by David Koch.

Americans for Prosperity has long been seen as the organisation at the heart of the Koch brothers’ political network, and has been widely credited with pushing American politics to the right.

Between July 2014 and July 2018, Sarah Elliott worked in London as the managing director of the American European Business Association (AEBA), which aims to “enhance commerce and transatlantic cooperation”. She told DeSmog UK that AEBA “did not take a position on Brexit, and that she did not work on Brexit as part of her work with AEBA”.

Describing her job to the Conservative Book Club, she said she would “bring together a select group of senior transatlantic executives over lunch to meet with global business leaders in an off-the-record setting eight to 10 times a year” — strengthening her connections on both sides of the Atlantic.


Image: Matthew Elliott at a Taxpayer's Alliance event. Credit: Taxpayers' Alliance CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

A British Tea Party’

From an early stage, Matthew Elliott has been influenced by Republican lobbying strategies, learning political campaigning techniques from Norquist — one of Washington’s most successful lobbyists.

Speaking to the Guardian in 2010, Matthew Elliott said he was keen to replicate the far-right American Tea Party movement in the UK:

You could say our time has come … We need to learn from our European colleagues and the Tea Party movement in the US … It will be fascinating to see whether it will transfer to the UK. Will there be the same sort of uprising?”

During that time, Matthew Elliott founded and supported a number of organisations and campaign groups charged with advancing this ideology: Big Brother Watch, which campaigns against state surveillance; Business for Britain, a group of businesses pushing for the UK to leave the EU; and the Conservative Friends of Russia.

He also serves on the advisory board of the New Culture Forum, a right-wing think tank which aims to challenge contemporary cultural debates in the UK and was founded by Ukip Assembly Member Peter Whittle.

The New Culture Forum argues that the right has won the economic argument but that the liberal left still dominates the cultural space, with its website saying the group was created to “challenge the dogma and relativism of the establishment and redefine the parameters of the cultural and political debate”.

The Taxpayers’ Alliance, Big Brother Watch, Business for Britain and the New Cultural Forum operate out of offices close to Westminster on Tufton Street. Desmog UK has repeatedly reported the networks of climate science deniers and opaquely-funded libertarian think tanks working in and around 55 Tufton Street.

Those Westminster offices have been a hub for right-ring organisations such at the Institute of Economics Affairs (IEA), the Taxpayers’ Alliance, the Adam Smith Institute and the Centre for Policy Studies, all of which work to shift mainstream Conservative ideology further to the right.

Through Matthew Elliott and a host of other right-wing lobbyists, Tufton Street has more recently become a cradle for hard-Brexit political campaign groups such as Leave Means Leave, the Economists for Free Trade, and IFT (previously the Institute for Free Trade).

It is also the home of the climate science denying Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF), set up by former Chancellor Nigel Lawson.

Last week, the Taxpayers’ Alliance conceded that it had coordinated with eight other Tufton Street organisations, including the GWPF, to push a free-market ideology and for a hard Brexit in the media.

This was part of an employment tribunal case involving BeLeave whistleblower Shahmir Sanni. The Taxpayers’ Alliance said the concession had been made “on pragmatic grounds” but that it did not “denote any agreement or acceptance of any facts or allegations” made by Sanni.

These groups have called on the government to cut red tape for businesses, including environmental protection, to ensure a US-UK free-trade deal post-Brexit, with Matthew Elliott and Sarah Elliott playing a leading role.

Matthew and Sarah Elliott told DeSmog UK that they disagreed with the characterisation of them as central figures in this network.

Brexit Bridges

Over the past couple of years, the couple has acted as a bridge between the hard-Brexiters in the UK and the transatlantic network of US private interests eyeing lucrative deals resulting from a US-UK free-trade deal.

As chair of Republicans Overseas, Sarah Elliott has strong ties to senior politicians and officials in both countries.

In July this year, she invited invited International Trade Secretary Liam Fox to Republicans Overseas’ 4th of July party in London — praising Fox’s efforts to push for a US-UK free-trade deal.

In February 2017, Sarah Elliott also met with a Number 10 government relations team to see how Republicans Overseas could work to strengthen political and cultural ties between the UK and the US.

While Sarah Elliott was promoting the “special relationship” that she claims to be “living out every day” through her marriage, Matthew Elliott was working to make Brexit a reality — creating the circumstances in which a highly deregulated US-UK free-trade deal could be struck.

As a then-senior fellow at the Legatum Institute, Matthew Elliott worked with Shanker Singham — a dual British-American national, and an influential Westminster lobbyist — setting out what a trade deal with the US would look like well before the EU referendum in June 2016.

Singham joined the IEA earlier this year and helped turn the think tank into Tufton Street’s most prominent voice on Brexit. He was at the heart of allegations earlier this year that the IEA was offering access to pro-Brexit UK ministers in exchange for funding from the US.

The IEA has previously denied the allegations, and did not respond to a request to comment for this article.

Matthew Elliott went on to head the Vote Leave campaign and become editor-at-large of Brexit Central.

In July, the Vote Leave campaign was fined £61,000 and reported to the police by the Electoral Commission, which accused it of refusing to collaborate in its investigation into allegations the campaign breached electoral spending rules.  

Last month, openDemocracy reported that the Met Police still hadn’t launched any criminal investigation into Vote Leave and its youth arm BeLeave, citing “political sensitivities”.

Mercer, Cambridge Analytica and Data Wars

The string of investigations into both Vote Leave and Nigel Farage’s Leave.EU’s activities during the EU referendum campaign led to a host of allegations over the way in which American billionaire and Trump benefactor Robert Mercer attempted to influence Brexit through the now-defunct data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica.

Extensive investigative work by journalist Carole Cadwalladr alleged that Cambridge Analytica worked for the Leave.EU campaign by scraping masses of data from Facebook profiles to target voters with political advertising.

Cadwalladr wrote that the role Mercer and Cambridge Analytica played in British politics “reveals the elephant in the room: Britain tying its future to an America that is being remade — in a radical and alarming way — by Trump”.

Cambridge Analytica has repeatedly denied doing paid or unpaid work for Leave.EU. Instead, both parties told the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) that only preliminary discussions took place. The ICO found no evidence to prove the contrary.

The Mercer family did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

The Vote Leave campaign — of which Matthew Elliott was CEO — used the services of another small Canadian-based data analysis company known as Aggregate IQ (AIQ).

Following the referendum vote, AIQ’s website held a quote from Vote Leave campaign director Dominic Cummings, stating: “We couldn’t have done it without them”.

AIQ accounted for 40 percent of Vote Leave’s account budget, according to The Observer.

According to Cadwalladr, there is evidence of a strong working relationship between AIQ and Cambridge Analytica’s parent company SCL Elections (SCLE), connecting both Vote Leave and Leave.EU’s data firm to Mercer.

A document obtained by the Observer shows that there was an “exclusive” agreement for all of AIQ’s intellectual property to be used by SCLE.

In a report published earlier this month, the ICO found that “while there was clearly a close working relationship between the two entities” it said there was “no evidence that AIQ has been anything other than a separate legal entity”.

It concluded that it found “no evidence of unlawful activities in relation to the personal data of UK citizens and AIQ’s work with SCLE”.

To date, we have no evidence that SCLE and CA were involved in any data analytics work with the EU referendum campaigns”, it added.

The Observer’s coverage of the involvement of Cambridge Analytica and SCLE in the EU referendum is subject to a legal complaint on behalf of both companies.

In a statement to The Observer, the companies’ lawyers said the stories contained significant inaccuracies and that the coverage was a “sustained campaign of vilification designed to paint a false and misleading picture of their clients”.

Matthew Elliott’s Data Analytics Companies

Both Vote Leave, led by Matthew Elliott, and Leave.EU focused much of their resources on online campaigning. This was a very deliberate strategy, according to Matthew Elliott.

Speaking to the Mackinac Center a year after the referendum, Matthew Elliott admitted that Vote Leave had been more successful online than on traditional media platforms. “Broadcast was terrible for us, print was better and online is where we pushed things out”, he said.

Matthew Elliott has shown a strong interest in using data in political campaigns both before and after the referendum.

In 2012, he was one of the founders of WESS Digital, a company that used data as a political campaign tool.  

Together with Guido Fawkes’ editor Paul Staines, former Labour digital strategist Jag Singh and digital specialist Andrew Whitehurst, they worked on a political campaigning tool which would use the Metis database to create social media profiles and targeted political ads.

Matthew Elliott remained a shareholder of WESS Digital until 2014. By 2015, all shares were transferred to Whitehurst.

Whitehurst worked as co-director with Thomas Borwick, Vote Leave’s former chief technology officer, who now runs Kanto Systems — a digital political consultancy that claims to “connect the dots between people, data and technology”.

Together with UKIP MP Douglas Carswell, Borwick also runs another campaign communication management company, Disruptive Analytica.

While it is unclear whether Kanto Systems and Disruptive Analytica work for the organisations based on Tufton Street, Carswell has ties to the groups that operate out of the offices.

In 2016, the IEA co-hosted the Atlas network’s Europe Liberty Forum – a free-market umbrella organisation based in Washington DC – less than a fortnight before the EU referendum.

Speaking at the event, Carswell said: “Think tanks should make life of all established political parties uncomfortable,” adding that the the digital revolution “is important in empowering consumers and promoting free markets”.

More recently, Matthew Elliott was involved in another digital campaign firm called Awareness Analytics Partners, known as A2P, which focused on US clients. He was the only British partner, and was listed on the company’s website until early 2018 when his name was removed.

A2P describes its expertise as “understanding and utilizing influence, enhancing online messaging and delivering groundbreaking social media advertising results”.

It is run by Sean Noble, who has strong ties to the Koch brothers, and Samantha Ravich, who was part of President Trump’s national security transition team.

According to Open Secrets, A2P’s clients are all based in the US and include the “No Tax on Jobs” campaign in Seattle; Arizona’s Republican candidate for Congress Steve Smith, who was repeatedly named a “friend of the taxpayer” by the Koch-funded group, Americans for Prosperity; and House Freedom Action, one of the most conservative groups in the US, which also receives funding from Koch Industries.

Matthew Elliott told DeSmog UK that neither WESS Digital nor A2P “worked on Brexit”.

The 'Kochtopus', US Libertarians, and Brexit

A2P isn’t the only Elliot-affiliated organisation with links to the Koch brothers.

In fact, many of the organisations involved in the network pushing for a deregulated post-Brexit US-UK free-trade deal are supported by Koch Family Foundations — one of the largest funders of libertarian causes and climate science denial in the world.

The Koch’s influence is so far-reaching that the network the brothers support has been dubbed the ‘Kochtopus’. Through its network, the Koch brothers have been accused of backing movements that have “undermined American democracy and have helped wealthy elites block progress on problems such as climate change and income inequality”.

The Atlas Network

Atlas is a Washington DC-based non-profit organisation that works to support more than 450 organisations in more than 90 countries promoting individual liberty and free-market ideals. The Charles Koch Foundation is a major donor.

Matthew Elliott is listed as one of Atlas Network’s mentors, with the task of helping others build free-market institutions all around the world. Many of the organisations in the UK pushing for a hard or no-deal Brexit are part of the Atlas Network, including the Adam Smith Institute, Centre for Policy Studies, Civitas, Open Europe and the IEA as well as the TaxPayers’ Alliance and Big Brother Watch — with the latter two founded by Matthew Elliott.

Many of the network’s members have supported climate science denial and campaigned against efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

Besides capacity-building, the Atlas network also acts as an influential funding stream with millions coming into Europe every year, with very little transparency over how the money is spent.

Atlas is registered as a 501(c)(3) organisation, which is exempt from federal income tax and is meant to act exclusively for religious, charitable, scientific, or educational purposes — similar to organisations like the IEA in the UK, which is registered as an “educational charity”.

Atlas’ status also means it has to file public tax returns.

However, the tax returns do not provide much detail on precisely how organisations like Atlas spend their money outside the US. Instead, Atlas only has to declare how much money it spent across regions, such as Europe, without any specifics.

The records show that Atlas increased its spending in Europe fivefold between 2015 and 2016, the year of the EU referendum — with spending increasing from $340k in 2015 to $1.7 million the following year.

Atlas did not respond to a request for comment regarding the details of its European spending, or the nature of the network’s interest in Brexit.

Atlas’ money comes largely from US mega-donors, including the Koch brothers. In 2016, the Charles Koch Foundation donated $101,658 to Atlas, up from $82,426 in 2015.

The Charles Koch Foundation did not respond to a request for comment regarding its interest in Brexit or its European spending.

The Donors Trust, a Koch grantmaking vehicle described by Mother Jones as the ‘dark money ATM of the conservative movement’, also gives significant sums to Atlas.

In 2016, the Donors Trust more than tripled its donations to Atlas giving the network $1,308,390 across 20 donations, including a single $990,000 donation — up from a total of $339,250 in 2015.

Donors Trust told DeSmog UK that it had no specific interest in Brexit, and retained no control or influence over how it's grantees spent the funds. A spokesperson said:

“DonorsTrust does not take nor advocate for specific policy positions, and certainly we have not engaged in any policy work focused specifically on the Brexit referendum. We make grants at the request of our account holders, and we have no involvement with any of the activities of our grantees.”

“As far as we know, the only purpose with the $990k contribution in 2016 was to support Atlas programs focused on its partners in Chile.”

The Atlas network is a close partner of the UK’s IEA through its US fundraising arm, the American Friends of the IEA. The IEA is one of nine organisations reported to be coordinating a campaign to push for a hard Brexit in the media from the Tufton Street offices.

Public tax records and 990 Forms show that Atlas is listed as a “related tax exempt organisation” to the American Friends of the IEA, with both organisations registered under the same Washington address. In 2016, former Atlas director Alex Chafuen was the officer registered on the Americans Friends of the IEA’s financial records.


Image: Excerpt from American Friends of the IEA's 2016 990 tax return form

Donors Trust has also previously donated directly to the American Friends of the IEA, although there is no record of a donation since it gave $10,000 in 2014.

According to an Atlas network briefing form shared with DeSmog UK, the AFIEA works to “improve public understanding of the foundations of a free and harmonious society” sometimes in coalition with organisations such as the IEA.

The brief stated that an American donor wishing to support the work of the IEA would have to specify to the AFIEA that the money be given to the IEA. It added that the AFIEA is controlled by a board of directors independently from the IEA, “with grant decisions made at their sole discretion”.

Epicenter: The IEA’s European Outlet

One of Atlas’ key European assets is the European Policy Information Centre, known as Epicenter, which was launched in 2014 to “provide a free market perspective in the European policy debate”.

Comprising nine European libertarian think tanks that are all part of the Atlas network, Epicenter claims to be “an independent initiative” that is “politically independent”. However, Epicenter is in fact funded entirely by money, staff and resources from the IEA, according to the EU’s Transparency Register.


Image: Excerpt from the EU's Transparency Register

Epicenter’s funding address is registered at 2 Lord North Street in London, which is the IEA’s address. The IEA’s 2017 financial statement describes Epicenter as “our European network of think tanks” and was allocated a budget of £220,000.

Shanker Singham, director of the International Trade and Competition Unit at the IEA and an influential Brexit lobbyist, is a prominent Epicenter author. Epicenter’s CEO Christina Stewart-Lockhart also acts as the director of outreach, education and programmes for the IEA in London.

Online pictures of the network’s young interns appear to have been taken looking down Lord North Street in London rather than in Brussels, where Epicenter is registered.

Epicenter’s activity shows how the IEA helps to disseminate and push Atlas’ libertarian agenda across Europe.

A spokeswoman for the IEA told DeSmog UK that Epicenter was a network of nine think tanks from all over Europe, which was launched by the IEA and five other European think tanks in 2014. She did not respond to DeSmog UK’s questions about the IEA’s influence in Europe and its access to funding.


Images: Pictures of Epicenter interns from the organisation's website, and a view of North Street from Google Street View.

Cato Institute and Free-Trade Deals

Another prominent US think tank, the Cato Institute, also works as a bridge between US libertarians and the UK’s pro-Brexit lobby groups.

The Cato Institute has a mission to “originate, disseminate, and increase understanding of public policies” based on libertarian principles.  

The Cato Institute was the lead US author of an “alternative” plan for a post-Brexit US-UK trade deal. The IEA, Initiative for Free Trade (IFT), Adam Smith Institute and Centre for Policy Studies — all of which are also members of Atlas — were listed as the UK authors of the plan, published in September 2018.

In 2016, Cato more than doubled its donations to Europe to $329,417, up from $130,000 in 2015, despite its overall donations across the world decreasing by more than $200,000 in 2016.

In 2016, $75,417 was donated for stipends for senior fellows and adjunct scholars, $250,000 was given to a Danish winner of a prize for “advancing liberty”, and $4000 went to the winner of a video contest.

The Cato Institute was founded in January 1977 by three men, including Charles Koch. The Charles Koch Foundation remains a major donor to the Cato Institute, donating more than $2.5m in 2016. The Mercer Family Foundation also gave the institute $300,000 in both 2015 and 2016.

The Mercers also donated $2,250,000 to Donors Trust in 2016, having donated nothing to the organisation in 2015. The Donors Trust is a prominent Cato Institute funder.

When approached for comment about its interest in Brexit, the Cato Institute pointed to its previous work outlining its case for a new “genuinely liberal” US-UK trade deal.

Tufton Street Revenue Boost

These US organisations do not have to detail where their European grants go. And many of the UK organisations are registered as think tanks and private limited companies, which means they do not have to declare their funding sources.

But at the same time that US libertarians were increasing their European spending, a number of UK organisations within the Tufton Street network that are closely linked to Matthew Elliott saw their revenues increase.

The IEA saw a 22 percent increase in donations between 2016 and 2017, according to Charity Commission documents — up to £2 million in 2017, from £1.6m in 2016.

The IEA’s Brexit activity also notably increased in 2017 — setting up a Brexit Unit in 2017, and hiring Shanker Singham to lead its International Trade and Competition Unit.

Singham and his unit were responsible for publishing the IEA’s widely criticised “alternative” Brexit plan in September 2018, which recommended slashing regulations to encourage free trade.

Singham and the IEA’s Director General Mark Littlewood were approached by undercover reporters for Greenpeace’s Unearthed suggesting the organisation was willing to have some aspects of its research directed by funders and offering access to ministers in return for funds. The IEA has denied the allegations.

Other organisations with close ties to the Elliotts also saw their revenues increase significantly in 2016 and 2017, around the time of the Brexit referendum.

Business for Britain, founded by Matthew Elliott as a campaign group for business leaders supporting a referendum on the UK’s membership in the EU, saw its capital and reserves increase fourfold to reach £300,199 in 2017, up from £73,188 in 2016. A number of people who supported the group went on to lead the Vote Leave campaign, including Dominic Cummings, Stephen Parkinson and Daniel Hodson.

Matthew Elliott told DeSmog UK that Business for Britain received no funds from organisations outside of the UK, including the Atlas network and the Cato Institute.

The Taxpayers’ Alliance, also founded by Matthew Elliott, saw its funds increase to £358,896 in 2017, up from £299,790 in 2016, and £260,437 in 2015.

The IFT, which was listed as the lead UK author on the alternative trade deal published with the Cato Institute, had £188,645 of assets on its first accounts, which were filed in January 2018. The IFT was set up after the Brexit referendum to promote free-trade deals between the UK and other countries.

Another organisation listed as an author on the alternative trade deal plan, the Centre for Policy Studies, had a turnover of £863,087 in 2017, up from £734,818 in 2016.

The End Game: Environmental Deregulation

What do these lobby groups and think tanks do with these resources? Brexit negotiations have created a policy vacuum at the very top of the UK government, leaving space for think tanks and other policy organisations on both sides of the debate to push their ideology and visions for a post-Brexit UK.

As a result, powerful private lobbies have strived to fill that vacuum and advocated to slash regulation and environmental protection post-Brexit in order to strike trade deals. This includes the Koch brothers, the Mercer family and the Atlas network which, as shown above, have strong ties to Matthew and Sarah Elliott.

If these groups have their way, there could be significant consequences for the environment.

The Koch family has spent more than ExxonMobil to fund organisations and projects questioning mainstream climate science. Greenpeace estimates the Kochs have given over $88 million to 80 groups denying climate change since 1997.

In 2015, DeSmog UK revealed that the Kochs had officially begun to lobby European regulators on issues as diverse as energy, climate action, environment, agriculture and rural development, competition, customs, and taxation.

A DeSmog analysis found that, collectively, the Mercers have also given at least $22 million to organisations that promote climate science denial while blocking moves to cut greenhouse gas emissions.  

Meanwhile, the Mercers back the far-right media organisation Breitbart, which regularly makes false claims about climate change, often through the work of infamous climate science denier James Delingpole.

While climate science denial might not be as blatant in the UK as it is in the US, the push for deregulation has become the battleground to roll back environmental protection.  

The prospect of a looming Brexit deal has done nothing to slow down lobbying efforts.

Two days after the cabinet reluctantly agreed to press ahead with the draft Brexit withdrawal agreement, three hard-Brexiters, including former Brexit minister David Davis MP, climate science denier Owen Paterson MP and IEA lobbyist Shanker Singham shared their views on the prospect of a US-UK free-trade deal at the libertarian think tank the Heritage Foundation in Washington DC.

In its alternative “Plan A+” Brexit plan, Shanker Singham — Matthew Elliott’s former colleague at the Legatum Institute — wrote that if the UK continued to strengthen its regulatory environment after Brexit, it would lead to “wealth destruction” and “push people into poverty”.

The plan singles out environmental protection rules as one of the areas where EU regulation is “moving in an anti-competitive direction” — a claim that has long been rebuked by environmental campaigners who argue that environmental protection can lead to investment, job creation and growth.

But the authors of the plan add that while environmental regulations are “sometimes valid attempts to deal with real environmental problems”, “frequently they are disguised methods of protectionism”.


Images: Two US-UK trade deal proposals from the IEA (top) and IFT and Cato Institute (bottom)

The IEA — the Tufton group with the strongest ties to the US’s Atlas network, and which has become the most prominent voice for deregulation for the Tufton Street network — has repeatedly made the case for cutting red tape to allow for a US-UK free-trade deal post Brexit.

Writing for The Times, IEA Director General Mark Littlewood called for a “bonfire of regulation and red tape” and urged the government to align the UK’s regulatory environment with countries that may have lower standards in order to strike trade deals.

In his words: “To over-simplify, trade talks essentially come down to sitting across a table, brandishing your regulatory rulebook and then seeing what you can agree to alter, remove or align to have a smoother trading relationship with the other side before you leave the room.”

Undercover reporting by Greenpeace’s Unearthed revealed how big American agribusiness interests were keen to shape the UK’s Brexit debate, lobbying the IEA for a weakening of the regulatory framework that could open the UK to American exports. Unearthed’s investigation also confirmed the extent of influence this Tufton Street network has with some cabinet members, including environment minister Michael Gove.

The threat Brexit poses to the UK’s environmental regulation has not gone unnoticed in parliament.

MPs from the Environmental Audit Committee warned that the UK could be left with gaping holes in environmental laws, allowing polluters to go unpunished and depriving wildlife of vital protection after Brexit.

The committee report found that the government had still not committed to replacing around a third of all environmental rules governing air, water, chemicals and waste disposal that cannot be copied over into UK law from the EU. It added that the lack of clarity about a large chunk of environmental regulation was “deeply worrying”.

That UK-based think tanks are not compelled to reveal their funders has cast a veil of opacity over the Brexit policy debate, with huge private interests being presented as the defenders of free-market ideology.

But the US libertarian influence on Brexit is not only a battle of ideas and ideology but is backed by millionaires and billionaires with fossil fuel interests who saw the referendum as an opportunity to open up the UK market to US exports.

These mega-donors’ influence has been channeled to the UK through networks such as Atlas and individuals such as Matthew and Sarah Elliott, who wield power through their connections — all in the name of pushing for deregulation post-Brexit, which would put profits before the environment.

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