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Sun, 29 March 2020

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By Hft
By Dods General Election Hub 2019

EXCL Top Tories face questions over links to secretive foreign affairs group

EXCL Top Tories face questions over links to secretive foreign affairs group
5 min read

Two senior Conservatives are facing questions over their links to a secretive foreign affairs group.


Rory Stewart and Nadhim Zahawi did not declare their chairmanship of transatlantic body 'Le Cercle' despite also sitting on several related Commons select committees, PoliticsHome can reveal.

The group organises gatherings of powerful figures from politics, business and the intelligence services to discuss foreign affairs.

But despite the nature of the meetings, neither Mr Stewart or Mr Zahawi declared their involvement with the group during their time as members of the powerful Foreign Affairs Select Committee.

Both senior Tory MPs confirmed to PoliticsHome they had held the chairmanship of Le Cercle, with Mr Stewart's tenure as chair lasting from 2013 until 2014, while Mr Zahawi held the top post from 2015 until his appointment as Children's Minister in early 2018.

Conventionally MPs declare their involvement with any groups related to their Parliamentary business, but neither registered their involvement with Le Cercle either in the committee's minutes or the wider Parliamentary register.

"Disturbing"

Sir Alistair Graham, the former Chair of the Commission for Standards in Public Life, said he was concerned by the apparent omission.

“It is disturbing that two experienced members of Parliament did not see fit to declare their active membership of Le Cercle at the time they were a member of a key select committee, the functions of which clearly overlapped with the discussions of Le Cercle, which is a shadowy body which concerns itself with foreign affairs,” he told PoliticsHome.

“Transparency is a central issue in British politics and I would have expected these two MPs to have shown greater leadership in letting the public and their constituents know their important links with Le Cercle.”

A spokesperson for Mr Stewart said he had resigned from Le Cercle upon his election to chair of the Defence Committee in May 2014, but admitted he had stayed on with the group "long enough to complete the hand over to his successor".

“There was no payment involved and no conflict of interest between his participation in the group and his other duties as an MP - which is why he did not declare an interest," they added.

Meanwhile, Mr Zahawi's office said the "informal" role of Le Cercle chairman consisted of setting the group's agenda and overseeing its discussions but did not include involvement in the group's finances. He continues to attend the group's meetings

"There is no press"

Information about the group, which has no website or official presence in the UK, remains scant, with a leaked invitation from former Le Cercle chairman Lord Lothian to Saudi Arabia's deputy foreign minister Prince Abdulaziz providing the most comprehensive account of the group's activities.

In the letter, released by Wikileaks in 2015, the former Conservative Party chairman claimed Le Cercle's meetings had been attended by a swathe of senior officials, including ex-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, former chairman of US Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan and Gulf War commander Norman Schwarzkopf.

Lord Lothian claimed the group was established in the 1950s by senior members of the French and German governments, but now encompasses between 80-100 members, including senior politicians, intelligence operatives and former diplomats from across Europe and America.

"We meet twice a year, once in Washington DC, and once elsewhere to review topics of interest, mostly foreign policy but also some domestic issues," the letter said.

"The group is largely European and American Members of Parliament, diplomats, members of the intelligence community, commentators and businessmen from over twenty-five countries."

"The meetings of Le Cercle are held under strict Chatham House rules. There is no press and everything that is said is off the record.

"We have never had any problems with that."

Funding

Both Mr Zahawi and Mr Stewart offices said they had not been renumerated for their involvement with Le Cercle and that they had paid for their own travel to attend the group's international sessions. Both denied they had any knowledge of how Le Cercle funds its operations.

Since 2009, several senior MPs have registered expenses for flights and accomodation paid for by Le Cercle, including then-shadow minister David Lidington and former Home Secretary Margaret Beckett.

In December 2018, Le Cercle shelled out over £12,000 in expenses for three senior Conservative MPs to attend the group's Washington D.C. gathering. Former Trade Minister Greg Hands registered a £4,154 donation for flights and accomodation paid for by the group for him to give a speech on international trade.

Another former trade minister, Mark Garnier, also registered flights and benefits worth £4,600 paid for by the organisation.

Meanwhile, veteran Le Cercle attendee and former justice minister Crispin Blunt listed expenses worth £4,000.

However, a registered address provided by the MPs for the group belongs to a virtual office company providing "behind the scenes" mailing addresses and telephone answering services. Over 10,000 companies are registered with the service, but none appear to be linked to Le Cercle.

There is no suggestion that any of the MPs were aware of Le Cercle's funding arrangements and all of the trips were registered in line with strict Commons rules.

Mr Hands, Mr Blunt and Mr Garnier did not respond to requests for further information about the trip.

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