Brexit campaigner Daniel Hannan was allowed to launch a new think tank at the Foreign Office without paying an expensive hire fee – even though the government’s chief ethics watchdog raised concerns about the event being funded by public money, BuzzFeed News can reveal.
A decision by Boris Johnson to allow Hannan to use government property to launch the Institute for Free Trade (IFT) last year was criticised by political opponents and kicked off a backroom argument between political aides and senior civil servants.
It eventually led to the Foreign Office changing its rules around the hiring of rooms to private organisations.
The dispute is detailed within a cache of emails obtained by BuzzFeed News under the Freedom of Information Act, which sheds light on the controversial launch of the IFT at the Foreign Office in September last year.
The IFT was set up by Hannan, a Conservative MEP, and seeks to pressure British MPs to adopt a harder stance on Brexit, including dropping EU tariffs and transitioning the country to a Singapore-style economy.
But when it was announced the pressure group would be launching in the Foreign Office's Map Room – with Johnson both hosting and speaking at the event – questions were raised about whether the foreign secretary was breaching the ministerial code.
According to the cache of emails, the IFT's rent-free launch raised an alarm with the civil service's chief ethics officer Sue Gray.
In an email from 29 September, an unnamed aide within the government told Johnson's private secretary Martin Reynolds and special adviser David Frost that Gray was "clear" that the think tank should pay the "full commercial rate".
"Sue Gray is clear that IFT should pay the room fee, at full commercial rate. Simon agrees," reads the email. "Can I ask you to liaise with them so that I can confirm to Sue that this is happening by cop today?"
Emails had been going back and forth between staff a day earlier, trying to explain why the IFT's launch at the Foreign Office was appropriate under existing rules.
Frost had emailed another unnamed aide, explaining that the launch event originated from a personal agreement struck between Johnson and Hannan.
"The origin of the event goes back to a discussion between Dan Hannan and the FS [Foreign Secretary] back in March / April when the FS agreed to host the launch. (I was not present at that meeting but checked the terms with the FS afterwards and that is the basis on which we proceeded.)," read the email.
Ahead of the speech, the prime minister's office became aware about the deal, with another unnamed aide emailing that they had concerns about the IFT not paying.
"No10 just called again to ask about this event. I've reiterated that it's not a speech etc. They've asked specifically why it's being hosted in the FCO and whether IFT are for the room - they're worried we could come in for some criticism about that."
To get a sense of the size of the benefit to the pro-Brexit think tank of striking the special deal, an email from an unnamed aide months earlier laid out the cost of hiring a room at the Foreign Office.
"I'm happy to take this forward and liaise with Dan Hannan on arrangements. If you agree, I'll hold off getting in touch with him until the FS has cleared [redacted] point below," reads the email from June last year.
"The Locarno Suite will be booked in the FS's name, 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?"
The emails also shed light on the government's approach to sections of the Westminster political media.
In the "Media handling" brief prepared for the event, five outlets – including four of the country's newspapers – are termed "friendlies". Another has been mysteriously redacted.
"Pre-brief sections of Sec of State's speech to friendlies (Brexit Central, Telegraph, Mail, Express, Sun and [redacted] into the day (if speech available)," reads the plan.
The drama behind the scenes surrounding the aftermath of the event, including the objections registered by Sue Gray, led to the Foreign Office changing its "room hire policy" around private organisations.
"Where the events supported the Government’s objectives, the FCO’s established practice allowed for a waiver of the room hire charge," read a letter from the Foreign Office addressed to BuzzFeed News.
"Following the event, it was suggested that this FCO practice might not be in line with that elsewhere in Government and accordingly the Foreign Secretary asked for a review of the room hire policy.
"As a result of this review the updated policy makes clear that non-government organisations must pay a fee and secure the support of an FCO or Department for International Trade team in order to host an event in rooms at the FCO."
However, the FCO said Hannan's pro-Brexit organisation would still get a pass this time.
"The FCO also considered whether to charge IFT a booking fee retrospectively. However, 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."
Hannan's office has been contacted for comment.