The Conservative Party is being lobbied by an anti-BLM, anti-Islam, anti-abortion, anti-LGBT, anti-green youth group which claims to be “grassroots” but which has links to opaquely funded right-wing think-tanks and far-right figures, an investigation by media non-profit the Citizens for VICE World News can reveal.
Members of the group make regular appearances in the national press and as guests on broadcasters TalkRadio and GB News.
Orthodox Conservatives claims to be a “grassroots” think-tank, but the investigation found that it is connected to both established conservative groups such as the Bruges Group - which have influence inside Westminster - and to far-right organisations.
It would be easy to dismiss the OCG as privileged students playing at politics, but the group is part of an influential network which includes MPs and members of the far-right. When VICE World News spoke to Luke Doherty, chairman of Orthodox Conservatives, he excitedly told us, “even the Prime Minister has heard of us!”
Orthodox Conservatives strategic director Joseph Robertson is regularly featured on GB News as a political commentator and has been quoted in the Daily Express on several occasions. Former OCG President Dominique Samuels was invited on to TalkRadio to disparage BLM as “a front for communism” during the height of the protests against racism in June 2020.
But who are Orthodox Conservatives?
Orthodox Conservatives was formed in 2020 from the ashes of the far-right student group Turning Point UK. In America, Turning Point USA made waves at university campuses by creating a “Professor Watchlist” of academics that it claimed taught “leftist propaganda” and “discriminated against conservative students”. A UK counterpart was launched in February 2019 but failed to make much of an impact in UK universities. It became a laughing stock on social media almost as soon as it launched after numerous spoof Twitter accounts were set up representing fictitious Turning Point UK branches. In January 2020, key members of Turning Point UK launched Orthodox Conservatives.
Orthodox Conservatives claims to be a “grassroots” group, but a look at the organisation shows that it is nothing of the sort.
The group’s advisory board includes Sir John Hayes, a Conservative MP who was a minister under David Cameron. Hayes is founder of the Common Sense Group, a group of 59 Conservative MPs and seven peers who announced their formation in November 2020 with a letter to the Daily Telegraph railing against “cultural Marxist dogma, colloquially known as the ‘woke agenda’.” Cultural Marxism is a far-right conspiracy theory with anti-Semitic origins that was used by Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Breivik. The Common Sense Group recently published a “war on woke” manifesto, aiming to influence the “culture wars” in the same way as the European Research Group of backbench MPs pushed the government for a hard Brexit.
Orthodox Conservative’s Head of Operations, Ethan Thoburn, is another link to the Common Sense Group. He is Communications and Campaigns Officer for Andrew Rosindell MP. Rosindell was a signatory to the Common Sense Group’s Telegraph letter and has been described in the Times as a “flag fanatic and super-patriot”.
The group also provides a bridge between these culture-war Conservative MPs, and others whose views put them outside the Tory tent.
Ben Harris-Quinney, chairman of the Tory Bow Group think-tank and ex-Conservative councillor, is Orthodox Conservatives’ chief advisor. He was expelled from the Tory party in 2015, and claims he was asked by a party candidate to leave for being a “racist and a homophobe”. In a blog post, he scoffed that if he was guilty of this, he “should have been expelled long ago”, but added his party membership had already lapsed.
Earlier that year, he had been recorded at an anti-LGBT conference describing David Cameron as being “forced to endure the indignity of legalising gay marriage with only the support of opposing parties”. More recently, he has tweeted against the “LGBT lobby” and the spectre of “Cultural Marxism”.
The Bow Group labels itself the “world’s oldest Conservative think-tank”. Founded in 1951, it has a controversial history. In 2020 it sponsored the National Conservative Conference in Rome, a meeting of hard-right figures from across Europe including Ryszard Legutko, a Polish Law and Justice party MEP who said that homophobia was a “totally fictitious problem” and Hermann Tertsch, an MEP from Spain’s Vox party who said that General Franco was not a fascist.
Orthodox Conservatives and the Bow Group have had several meetings with far-right figureheads. Benjamin Loughnane, a Bow Group researcher and contributor to the Orthodox Manifesto - a document spelling out Orthodox Conservatives’ beliefs - has spent evenings with British YouTuber and conspiracy theorist Paul Joseph Watson at the Reform Club - a private members club in Pall Mall, for which membership costs £1,344 per year. The Reform Club is an exclusive establishment frequented by MPs and party donors - Brexit Opportunities Minister Jacob Rees Mogg has been seen eating there.
In July 2021, Alice Grant, Orthodox Conservatives head of education attended the annual summer party of free-speech group the New Culture Forum. Held at an undisclosed location, the bash was hosted by UKIP MP Peter Whittle. Other guests included Loughnane of The Bow Group and US conservative provocateur Andy Ngo - best known for having a milkshake thrown at him by anti-fascist activists after embedding with far-right groups.
The group’s finances also belie its claims of being “grassroots”.
Members of Orthodox Conservatives have claimed that the majority of the group’s work is funded by its members. There is no publicly available list of donors.
The Bow Group is based at 71-75 Shelton Street. VICE World News has uncovered eight separate companies currently or formerly run from this address whose directors are members of Orthodox Conservatives, the Bow Group or Turning Point UK. Despite most having existed for at least two years, few appear to be making any money and many list “activities of political organisations” as their business.
Surge Britain Ltd is one of these. Started in 2021 and listed as a political organisation, it is run by Orthodox Conservatives’ strategic advisor Robertson (under his real name of Josephmarie Dulston) and Loughnane. As with the other companies we discovered, what they actually do is as opaque as their finances.
71-75 Shelton Street also sheds light on Orthodox Conservatives’ proximity to the far-right. The address is also the base of far-right Christian YouTube channel Hearts of Oak. The Hearts of Oak website lists among its contributors a number of controversial figures.
There is ex-EDL leader Tommy Robinson, right-wing blogger David Vance and far-right vlogger Carl “Sargon of Akkad” Benjamin. Also among them are Dr Niall McRae, co-author of an Islamophobic and anti-Semitic conspiracy booklet that VICE revealed was distributed at Conservative Party conference in 2018 and Catherine Blaiklock, former leader of the Brexit Party (now the Reform Party) who had to resign over a series of anti-Islam tweets. Blaiklock is also on the board of the Reform Party, whose “Counter Conference” was organised by Robertson last year.
Robertson, 24, is taking a masters degree in International Relations at Portsmouth University. He told VICE World News that Boris Johnson is “operating to the left of Blair… we certainly don't see him as a true Conservative leader; that broad lie that brought him to power is being revealed more and more through tax hikes.”
As for his group’s role, “We are a sort of safe space for conservatism”, he said.
What this means is spelled out in the OCG’s manifesto which was created in collaboration with the homophobic Christian legal advisory group ADF Legal. It describes BLM as a “divisive, gendered, and artificial ideology that fetishises skin-deep diversity” and seeks to “make the case for having an abortion less necessary” by adopting the controversial Hungarian system of financial incentives for two-parent families. This echoes the opinion of Hungarian Families Minister Kaitlin Novak, who met with Jacob Rees-Mogg in 2021.
The manifesto claims educational standards have slipped because “[20 years ago] teachers began to dress informally" and calls for a return to corporal punishment in schools. It also warns of the “harmful, divisive, menacing influence which Gender Ideology inflicts on children”. It calls for the government to “conduct thorough independent research into [OFSTED] and hold it accountable for its actions” in promoting “Gender Ideology” and “Critical Race Theory” - an academic discipline which has been adopted by right-wing culture warriors as a catch-all term used to dismiss any discussion of racism.
When VICE World News presented this manifesto to far-right extremism expert and researcher for ISD Global, Julia Ebner, she described OCG as “more radical than they look at first sight.”
“They are trying to move the Overton Window… further to the right,” she said, referring to the “window” or range of policies that are generally seen as acceptable in mainstream politics.
Regarding their similarities to the far-right, Ebner says both have “a clear focus on aesthetics, cultural purity and traditional family values” noting that “they hijack words like ‘conservative’ and ‘Christian’ but their manifesto is full of alt-right vocabulary.”
“They use fancy words and sophisticated rhetoric to camouflage radical ideologies [and to] be perceived as legitimate and harmless,” Ebner added.“They also have a much higher potential to provoke radical change in politics, business and culture, as they are more likely to get into influential professional positions”.
Sir John Haynes was approached for comment but did not reply.
When asked about Orthodox Conservatives relationship with the Bow Group, Loughnane told us “there is no formal association”. Robertson said Orthodox Conservatives has a “good working relationship” with the Bow Group and their collaboration is a “mutual thing”.
This story was published in collaboration with media non-profit the Citizens.