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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 June 2018

Think tank advising Brexit-backing cabinet ministers has Russian links

Michael Gove and Boris Johnson took advice from a senior figure at a group with links to Vladimir Putin

Boris Johnson was reported to have consulted a think-tank with links to Russia before writing an ultimatum on Brexit to Theresa May. Jack Taylor/ Getty Images
Boris Johnson was reported to have consulted a think-tank with links to Russia before writing an ultimatum on Brexit to Theresa May. Jack Taylor/ Getty Images

The Brexit ultimatum issued to prime minister Theresa May by her Leave-supporting cabinet ministers Michael Gove and Boris Johnson was overseen by figures at a think tank founded by a multimillionaire who made his money in Russia during the wild years of free-market capitalism after the Soviet Union collapsed.

A senior member of the Legatum Institute, which was set up by the New Zealand-born Christopher Chandler and his brother Richard, helped to draft the letter which put pressure on Mrs May to harden her stance on Brexit. The Mail on Sunday newspaper reports that Shanker Singham, Legatum’s economics director, was the "third man" alongside Mr Gove and Mr Johnson who formulated the ideas sent to the prime minister.

The letter contained three red lines for the Brexiteers in the cabinet: that chancellor Philip Hammond plan for a "hard Brexit", which he had been resisting; to use Brexit to cut red tape across Whitehall and beyond; and for there to a "Brexit Tsar" appointed who would work across the civil service ensuring that preparations for exit from the EU were being co-ordinated.

It now looks as though the letter was an unmitigated success. Mr Hammond’s budget this week set aside £3 billion for preparations for a "no deal" situation. It’s also been widely reported, according to the newspaper, that the environment secretary Mr Gove has been crowing that the PM will use Brexit to help slash rules and regulations enforced by Brussels.

And it appears that Mr Singham himself is positioning to take on the Whitehall role. The Mail on Sunday claims that over the past year he has held at least seven secret meetings with key figures at DexEU – the Department for Exiting the EU headed by David Davies. A dual US-UK citizen, Mr Singham previously worked for 18 years at the American law firm Squire Sanders, which has been part of the investigation into Donald Trump’s links to Russia.

The Chandlers also have strong links to Russia. In 2000 they helped to engineer a boardroom coup at the energy giant Gazprom that brought in Alexey Miller as its boss. Mr Miller had links to Vladimir Putin, who had just won his first term as president at the turn of the century.

In 2006 Christopher set up the Legatum Group, which is a parent organisation of the institute. It has been forceful in demanding that Britain make a "hard Brexit" from the European Union. It received more than £4.4 million in funding last year – £3.9 million of which came from the Legatum Group.

Mr Gove told the UK newspaper that he had met one of the Chandler brothers on one occasion. But when asked about a meeting on Friday with Mr Singham that the newspaper had uncovered, he said that the “blessed sponge of amnesia wipes the memory slate clean”.

A former Labour cabinet minister, Liam Byrne, told the newspaper: “In the light of the Mail on Sunday’s revelations of the close links between the Legatum Institute and the Johnson-Gove hard Brexit putsch, it is now critical that this think tank’s relationship with the government is thoroughly investigated. I urge parliament’s intelligence and security committee to launch a wide inquiry into Russian interference and settle the serious and lingering questions.”