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A Spin Doctor Helping the Independent Group Worked for a Hawkish Right-Wing Think-Tank

The "new" and "different" political movement is using the services of a guy who used to work for the Henry Jackson Society.
25 February 2019, 1:17pm
The Independent Group
Chukka Umunna speaks as seven Labour MPs resign to form a new party called The Independent Group. Photo: Tommy London / Alamy Stock Photo

The former top spin-doctor for a right wing, neo-conservative think-tank appears to be providing his services to Chuka Umunna's new Independent Group of MPs.

PR consultant Rob Newman (no relation to the comedian) seems to be managing public relations for the launch of the breakaway "Independent Group", including managing the launch event and the website – although the group are doing their best to obscure what, if any, tasks he actually is doing for them.

Newman was seen apparently helping to manage the launch of the Independent Group last Monday. That day, he also tweeted about the "enormous traffic" and many "pledges of support" coming in for the website – something only an insider would know about.

VICE asked Chuka Umunna's office about Newman's role. They said Newman would respond to our email. He didn't. So we phoned Newman directly. He said he was "not answering any questions about this" and refused to talk further. Enquiries to The Independent Group press email got no response. The Independent Group is actually run as a company, legally known as Gemini A Ltd, which is owned by one of their members, Gavin Shuker MP. We also spoke to and emailed Gavin Shuker's office, but got no answer there either.

Why the big secret? Newman worked for the Labour Party between 2008 and 2014, including stints as assistant to MPs David Blunkett and Liz Kendal, before becoming a lobbyist. For much of 2018, Newman was Director of Communications and Policy for the Henry Jackson Society (HJS), a think-tank and lobby group focussing on foreign policy. HJS – which is usually described as "right wing" or "neoconservative" – is a £1.3 million a year operation, and keeps the identity of its donors secret.

Newman stopped working full time for HJS in August of 2018 to become an independent public affairs consultant. Newman's Commons registration says he is independent. HJS is one of his two clients. Earlier this February, Newman had a House of Commons pass from John Woodcock, another MP who resigned from Labour, but has not joined the Independent Group.

On his LinkedIn profile, Newman describes the HJS as "a think-tank dedicated to the values of democracy, freedom and human rights, working across political parties". The HJS has attracted some Labour support, and its launch was backed both by big name Tories like Michael Gove and by Labour MPs including Gisela Stuart.

One of the think-tank's key figures has made inflammatory statements about Islam in the wake of terrorist attacks. Douglas Murray became an "associate director" of HJS in 2011, a position he held when Rob Newman became the Society's Communications Director in 2018. In 2017, Murray told the BBC that "less Islam in general is obviously a good thing", because of terrorism. This echoed Murray's demand in a notorious 2006 speech that "conditions for Muslims in Europe must be made harder across the board" and "immigration into Europe from Muslim countries must stop" before "a number of our largest cities fall to Muslim majorities".

In 2018, the Henry Jackson Society also tried to encourage public support for the Saudi leadership. Rob Newman tweeted an article by one Henry Jackson researcher who said British people should "think twice" before protesting against visits by Saudi Sheikhs because Saudi was reforming. "The man who with the vision for this new Saudi Arabia – as well as the power to enforce it – is Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known universally as MBS," the article argued, adding that "MBS" was "the ally Britain needs".

"Under Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, things in Saudi Arabia are changing – quickly," Newman wrote. The idea that things in Saudi Arabia were changing disappeared within months, as Saudi forces murdered and dismembered dissident Jamal Khashoggi in their Turkish Embassy.

Newman helped launch the Henry Jackson Society’s "Global Britain" programme, which argued for an "expansive British geostrategic policy". After Newman left, a report filed under the "Global Britain" programme banner was used by Boris Johnson to call for cuts to the UK foreign aid budget as part of his post-Brexit vision for Britain.

The Society's neo-conservative, pro-Saudi leadership position sits well with lots of Tories, but can also fit at least some of the new Independent Group of MPs. Mike Gapes has been on a number of Saudi-funded trips to the Kingdom. After an £8,700 trip to Saudi funded by the regime last year, Gapes praised the "rapid economic and societal change" he saw in "the modern city of Riyadh including its shopping malls, where there are many UK retailers, and its parks and museums".

The Independent Group's foreign policy statement says, "We believe in maintaining strong alliances with our closest European and international allies on trade, regulation, defence, security and counter-terrorism." Like the rest of their policy statement, it is very bland, but behind the jargon this could be a call for a return of the time when Labour governments stood firmly alongside the US in the "War on Terror", and solidly in support of Saudi Arabia.

As well as refusing to say anything about Newman's involvement with the Independent Group, neither Newman, the Independent Group, Chuka Umunna's office nor Gavin Shuker's office would say anything about his past work for the Henry Jackson Society when approached by VICE for comment.