A rightwing thinktank has been offering potential US donors access to government ministers and civil servants as it raises cash for research to support the free-trade deals demanded by hardline Brexiters, according to an investigation.
The director of the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) was secretly recorded telling an undercover reporter that funders could get to know ministers on first-name terms and that his organisation was in “the Brexit influencing game”.
Mark Littlewood claimed the IEA could make introductions to ministers and said the thinktank’s trade expert knew Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, David Davis and Liam Fox well.
The IEA chief was also recorded suggesting potential US donors could fund and shape “substantial content” of research commissioned by the thinktank and that its findings would always support the argument for free-trade deals.
This could hugely benefit US farmers by lifting the ban on the sale in the UK of beef from cattle treated with growth hormones and chlorine-washed chicken.
Speaking about what kind of Westminster access the IEA could provide donors with, Littlewood told the investigator: “I have absolutely no problem with people who have business interests, us facilitating those.”
The investigation, undertaken in May and June, also revealed the thinktank had already provided access to a minister for a US organisation.
The disclosures are likely to raise fresh questions about the independence and status of the IEA, which is established as an educational charity. Charity Commission rules state that “an organisation will not be charitable if its purposes are political”.
The investigation also sheds light on the way US business interests seem keen to influence the Brexit debate by bolstering the arguments of hardliners inside the Conservative party who continue to grow in strength.
In lengthy exchanges with the Guardian, the IEA said there was “nothing untoward about thinktanks having a collaborative approach with politicians”, adding that it had “no corporate view” on Brexit.
“It is spurious to suggest that the IEA is engaging in any kind of ‘cash for access’ system,” a spokesman said. “All thinktanks have relationships with government officials and politicians.” He said it had not accepted any cash from US business in relation to its work on trade and Brexit.
Founded in 1955, the IEA describes itself as the UK’s original free market thinktank. In the two years since the EU referendum, it has been a platform for those pushing for a clean-break Brexit.
The footage was gathered by Unearthed, an investigations unit set up by Greenpeace amid concerns about the IEA and whether it was working behind the scenes to use Brexit to lower environmental standards.
The IEA is already subject to a Charity Commission review of a complaint that its promotion of a hard Brexit is incompatible with its charitable status.
A reporter from the unit posed as a consultant for a US agriculture investor, secretly taping conversations with senior IEA officials on two occasions.
The recordings include discussions between Littlewood and the reporter in which the IEA director sets out the potential benefits of funding work by the thinktank.
Littlewood explained that a meeting with an agriculture minister would provide him and his client with the opportunity “for you to say, ‘Minister I’m really keen to bend your ear about beef’”.