Net that walks the corridors of power

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The Independent Online
To conspiracy theorists, the British American Project was set up as a cleverly disguised front for the CIA. But as the new induction of BAP members indulge themselves in Swedish body massages and whirlpool baths at a luxury Scottish hotel next month, they know they are joining one of the most powerful networking vehicles in Tony Blair's Britain.

Peter Mandelson, the minister without portfolio will be there. So will Chris Smith, the Secretary of State for National Heritage, and Mo Mowlam, the Northern Ireland Secretary.

On other pages of the pocket-sized BAP register are contacts for George Robertson, the Secretary of State for Defence, and Liz Symons, now Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean and a Foreign Office minister.

The 500 individuals who make up the BAP expect to get direct access to other fellows. According to Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair's chief of staff in Downing Street, the BAP "takes the working out of networking". They are the men and women who have been identified as the future leaders of Britain and America, who meet once a year for four-day conferences.

The project was founded 12 years ago amid concern about future US isolationism in the face of anti-American feeling in Europe. It was launched partly with the aid of a $425,000 grant from the Philadelphia-based Pew Memorial Trust, which is derived from the billion-dollar fortune of the Pew family, known for its Presbyterian and strongly Republican values as well as its philanthropy.

The right-wing credentials of some of those involved in the early stages of the BAP inspired rumours of CIA involvement.

The galvanising force who made this idea work and developed it into the potent force it is today was Nick Butler, who is now policy adviser to BP chief executive John Brown. Noting that the British Embassy in Washington recently funded a private reception for BAP fellows, Mr Butler modestly observed: "The network of contacts is quite strong." He now plans a European version of the BAP.

Although its list of British fellows appears at first like a roll-call of the Left Establishment, the BAP also includes a number of senior right- wing commentators and Tory politicians, with Lord Charrington being the the head of the BAP advisory board.

Stephen Dorrell, the former Tory health secretary and a BAP fellow, said the project "performs an invaluable role in promoting contact and friendship between the United States and Great Britain."

But the importance of the BAP as a networking tool for New Labour has intensified with the recent arrival on the BAP committee of Julia Hobsbawm, of the Hobsbawm Macauley PR company, which is closely allied to the party - her partner Sarah Macauley is the girlfriend of the Chancellor, Gordon Brown.

Ms Hobsbawm has introduced a new dynamism to promoting the BAP and a number of companies have seen the value of providing funding to the project.

Camelot recently agreed to pay pounds 10,000-a-year for three years towards the BAP's running costs, which are estimated at pounds 150,000 a year. Other BAP sponsors include Cadbury Schweppes, Hanson, ICL, BP, British Airways and NatWest.

The American side of the project is widely-seen as more business-oriented, more right-of-centre than the British, and less linked to government. It includes senior Coca-Cola executives and software moguls as well as senators.

In all, 24 Britons and 24 Americans, are picked by a selection panel each year, from a pool of around 100 candidates nominated by past fellows, to become the new intake of delegates. The first conference is free and thereafter fellowspay for themselves.

This year's conference takes place at the Peebles Hydro, a luxury Scottish borders hotel The BAP newsletter promises: "We will have the hotel to ourselves, so traditional BAP conviviality will be unrestrained."