Think tank launch in Foreign Office signed off by Johnson raised No10 concerns

Boris Johnson's decision to allow a think tank set up by an arch Brexiteer to host its launch in the Foreign Office (FCO) without charging it for using a room raised concerns in Downing Street and the Cabinet Office, documents suggest.

The Foreign Secretary threw open the doors to Whitehall's most opulent department building for the IFT, run by Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan.

Internal government emails, obtained by Greenpeace investigative arm Unearthed, show Mr Johnson signed off on the IFT using a suite for free, waiving the £6,000 hire cost, although the event was later moved to the building's Map Room, the fees for which are not revealed in the documents.

Mr Johnson claimed in the House of Commons on Tuesday there was "no cost to the public purse" for the launch, in response to a question from Labour MP Chris Bryant.

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson looks up at the ornate ceiling as he walks with US House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan, at the Foreign Office in London. (PA Archive)
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson looks up at the ornate ceiling as he walks with US House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan, at the Foreign Office in London. (PA Archive)

The Foreign Secretary used the event to call for Britain to become a world leader in opening up economies, while his Brexit campaign allies Michael Gove and International Trade Secretary Liam Fox also attended.

But on September 26, the day before the launch, an unnamed official wrote that Downing Street raised concerns that the Government could "come in for some criticism" over the free use of the room, according to Unearthed.

And the day after the event another official said Cabinet Office ethics director Sue Gray was "clear that IFT should pay the room fee, at full commercial rate", according to the documents.

But in a Wednesday letter to Unearthed, the Foreign Office revealed it had not subsequently asked IFT to pay for the room despite Ms Gray's concerns, although the think tank had paid for security and refreshments.

Doug Parr, policy director at Greenpeace, said: "It looks like Boris Johnson and Liam Fox pulled out all the stops to help launch a new pressure group that wants to weaken precious British standards around food, animal welfare and the environment - the very areas Gove and May claim will be protected when we leave the EU.

"The IFT advocates the hardest of Brexits to secure a trade deal with Trump's America and now we know the British people helped pay for their coming out party. Taxpayers will wonder why they're putting their money where Daniel Hannan's mouth is."

Responding to concerns about the launch raised by Labour MP Chuka Umunna, Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood said the event was "handled in line with longstanding policy" and its guest list included politicians, EU and non-EU ambassadors and representatives from other think tanks and from the business world.

He wrote to Mr Umunna: "Official involvement in organising the event was limited to basic logistical support. IFT covered all expenditure arising from the event. Given that the event supported the Government's objectives on free trade, IFT was not charged for its use of the FCO rooms."

Sir Jeremy said FCO policy has since been updated to ensure non-government organisations pay a fee and secure the support of a department directorate to host an event in the rooms, moving it in line with other Whitehall departments.

He added: "The FCO also considered whether to charge IFT a booking fee retrospectively.

"However, as the approach to charging for the event was within the scope of the FCO room booking rules at the time, they decided that it would not be appropriate to do so."

Sir Jeremy said he had not found any breach of the Civil Service, special advisers or ministerial codes.

But responding, Mr Umunna, a supporter of the Open Britain campaign for close ties with the EU, said: "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."

Mr Bryant, who also supports Open Britain, said: "Boris Johnson was flying by the seat of his pants (on Tuesday).

"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 wacky fanatics, but the reality is they are highly influential and are pushing a dangerous agenda."

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