Steve Baker Reboots Libertarian Bloc With Funding From Head of Climate Denial Group

Advocates of climate action fear Conservative Way Forward’s relaunch will galvanise the right-wing campaign being waged against Britain’s net-zero efforts.
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Climate campaigners speaking to Steve Baker as part of a "mass lobby" of MPs in 2015. Credit: Stonehouse Photographic/WWF-UK (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Conservative MP Steve Baker is reviving a Thatcherite pressure group with financial support from the chair of the UK’s principal climate science denial group, raising fears the organisation will serve as a new hub of opposition to green policies. 

Baker, a staunch critic of Britain’s net-zero measures, is due to relaunch Conservative Way Forward, which faced scrutiny in 2015 following the suicide of one of its employees, at an event in Westminster on Monday.

The former Brexit minister has assembled some influential figures to support the initiative, including Ed Barker, a public relations consultant who worked on Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s 2019 party leadership campaign. Barker also advises the Dubai-based investment firm behind right-wing television channel GB News.

Conservative Way Forward published a pamphlet over the weekend calling for wide-ranging tax cuts, including a reduction in VAT on fuel and the suspension of “green levies” on energy bills, used to fund renewable energy projects among other things.

The brief report has already been backed by two Tory leadership hopefuls: newly appointed Chancellor Nadhim Zahawi, who has had a lucrative career in oil, and Attorney General Suella Braverman, who said last week that the UK should “suspend the all-consuming desire to achieve net zero by 2050”.

Tory peers David Frost, a former chief Brexit negotiator, and Daniel Hannan, a former MEP, are also reportedly backing Conservative Way Forward, and Sir Graham Brady, the Conservative party’s chairman, was seen pictured alongside Baker in a photo from an event hosted by the group last September.

Neil Record, a currency trader and chair of the Global Warming Policy Forum (GWPF), donated £5,000 to Baker in February for a “media and strategic campaign consultant”, understood to be Barker, to work on the Conservative Way Forward relaunch, according to parliament’s register of interests. 

Record is also chair of the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) think tank, which has a record of opposing government climate policies and has received funding from oil giant BP since the 1960s.

The donation, which was also intended to support Baker’s Covid Recovery Group of MPs opposing coronavirus restrictions, was first reported by DeSmog in March in a story examining Baker’s campaign against the UK’s 2050 net zero target.

Baker is a trustee of the GWPF’s charitable arm and in April retweeted a paper by the group claiming there is “no evidence of a climate crisis.” At an event hosted in parliament last week by the GWPF, Baker reportedly accused climate campaigners of “terrifying children” and said he regarded their warnings as “child abuse”. 

DeSmog has documented the extensive ties between the GWPF and Baker’s Net Zero Scrutiny Group of MPs opposed to the UK’s climate goals. 

With UK politics in turmoil following Johnson’s resignation last week, advocates of climate action worry that a revived Conservative Way Forward, led by a skilled power-broker, could help further energise a wider network of Tory MPs, think tanks and lobbyists opposed to rapid decarbonisation.

“Steve Baker’s links to climate deniers is no secret,” said Wera Hobhouse, Liberal Democrat spokesperson on climate and energy. “The relaunch of this group and its backing from the Global Warming Policy Forum tells you everything you need to know about what stance they may take on tackling climate change.”

Baker, Record and the GWPF did not respond to a request for comment.

‘Hard to Square with Net Zero’

Conservative Way Forward published a pamphlet on Saturday entitled “A Charter For Tax Cuts”, which argues that a reduction in the tax “burden” will spur investment and economic growth.

The publication, written by Julian Jessop, a fellow at the IEA think tank, suggests cutting VAT levied on fuel. Experts say such a move would principally benefit wealthier motorists – something Jessop acknowledged in March.

The publication also suggests “suspending some of the policy levies from domestic bills, including the ‘green levies’” – a long-standing demand of the GWPF. The publication does not say whether these levies should be moved to general taxation, as the energy sector and some climate experts are advocating.

“This would be hard to square with the Government’s ‘net zero agenda’. But the Government could stress that these changes would only be temporary and that other countries are doing similar things,” the document said.

Jessop describes himself as an “independent economist” and previously had a career in banking. He has argued for “market-based solutions” to environmental problems but has a record of dismissing climate action.

He has claimed electric cars produce more emissions than petrol and diesel vehicles over their lifetime, despite evidence to the contrary. He has also argued that investment in new oil and gas projects would be climate-friendly because they would “apply more modern technologies” than existing developments, and said criticising wealthy people for their higher emissions “doesn’t make any sense at any level”.

Conservative Way Forward

In a comment article for the Telegraph in December announcing plans to relaunch Conservative Way Forward, Baker wrote: “Conservatives want to save and protect the planet from global warming, but they also know that all radical government-mandated solutions need scrutiny, sober debate and frankness with the public about how much they will cost.

“Conservatives don’t treat us as empty vessels or mere automata, as problems to be managed, but as individuals who deserve the dignity of choice and the meaning in our lives that comes from taking responsibility in all our relationships.”

Conservative Way Forward was founded in 1991 to “defend and build upon the achievements” of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s leadership of the Conservative Party, according to its LinkedIn profile. The group’s new incarnation will seek to “redefine the territory on which the Conservative Party operates”, according to its website.

The group faced public scrutiny seven years ago after one of its employees, Elliott Johnson, took his own life and left a note accusing Tory election aide Mark Clarke of bullying him. Clarke strongly denied the allegation.

Tory PR Expert

One of Conservative Way Forward’s directors, Ed Barker, runs a Westminster public relations and lobbying firm called Barker Strategy and played a “key role” in both Boris Johnson and Esther McVey’s party leadership campaigns in 2019, according to an archived version of the firm’s now-deleted website.

Barker has worked with various pro-Brexit, free-market groups including Nigel Farage’s Leave Means Leave campaign, and the IT services company Accenture, the archived homepage showed.

The website includes testimonials from Steve Baker and numerous other figures on the right of the Conservative party, including Home Secretary Priti Patel, Brexit Opportunities Minister Jacob Rees-Mogg, and Trade Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan.

Barker is also listed as the media contact for the Legatum Group, a Dubai-based investment firm that bankrolls the right-wing channel GB News, which has provided a platform to numerous climate science deniers and opponents of environmental action.

In 2019, he stood as the Tory candidate in Derby South where he was criticised for buying the domain name of his Labour rival and turning it into an attack website.

Another director, Paul Osborn, the Conservative leader of London’s Harrow Council, has past ties to the Heritage Foundation, a US think tank well-known for casting doubt on climate science and opposing green legislation.

According to a 2013 register of interests, Osborn was a member of the Heritage Foundation’s Young President’s Club, but this is no longer listed in the latest available register, dated November 2020.

Tory MP Sir Christopher Chope, one of only five MPs to vote against the 2008 Climate Change Act, was chairman of Conservative Way Forward at the time of the vote. He later became honorary vice chairman of the group but it is unclear if he still remains in the role.

In 2018, Chope attended a GWPF event to mark ten years since the passing of the Act, which the GWPF blamed, along with “other anti-fossil-fuel policies”, for fuel poverty in the UK.

Jessop, Barker and Osborn were all contacted for comment.

Additional research by Rachel Sherrington.

Steve Baker Reboots Libertarian Bloc With Funding From Head of Climate Denial Group
Rich is Deputy Editor of DeSmog's UK team. He joined the organisation in December 2018 as a UK-focused investigative reporter, having previously worked in communications for the climate charity Operation Noah. He is a member of the National Union of Journalists.
Steve Baker Reboots Libertarian Bloc With Funding From Head of Climate Denial Group
Adam Barnett is DeSmog's UK ews Reporter. He is a former Staff Writer at Left Foot Forward and BBC Local Democracy Reporter.

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