Richard Branson's Virgin to bankroll secret Blairite campaign to stop Brexit

Exclusive: Email seen by The Independent shows billionaire's company has offered tens of thousands of pounds to fund new group

Benjamin Kentish
Monday 21 November 2016 21:24 GMT
Richard Branson was open about his support for the Remain campaign before the EU referendum
Richard Branson was open about his support for the Remain campaign before the EU referendum (PA)

Richard Branson’s Virgin Group is to help bankroll a campaign set up in secret by Blairite former ministers and advisers to derail Brexit, The Independent can reveal.

An email seen by The Independent highlights the scale of backing the group has already secured. It shows the campaign has been months in the planning and claims “substantial progress” has already been made, including the identification of “an excellent potential CEO”. The memo was written by Alan Milburn, who was one of Tony Blair’s closest cabinet allies.

It reveals the group has heavy financial, political and corporate backing and is receiving advice and support from a host of high-level business and communications organisations.

Richard Branson would like another referendum

High-profile MPs including former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Labour MP Chuka Umunna are believed to have had contact with the group, as have celebrities such as Bob Geldof.

Freuds, a leading public relations agency that was founded by Matthew Freud, a close friend of both Mr Blair and David Cameron, is understood to have been commissioned to manage the strategy and marketing of the campaign.

The email says: “We have been beavering away over the last few months to get a Europe campaign up and running. I’m pleased to say that substantial progress has been made.”

“I have met the Freuds team several times and we are making good progress.

“I have been in discussions with an excellent potential CEO to lead the campaign.

“Virgin … are keen to help ... Since we last spoke [they] have offered a further £25k, plus bigger office space, help with legal advice and a possible secondment.

“I have held discussions with Stronger In, Chuka Umunna, a new organisation called Common Ground, Bob Geldof and a number of senior politicians across the party spectrum.” Mr Milburn declined to comment.

Bob Geldof at a March for Europe rally in July (Getty)

Backers of the new group hope that public support for a rethink will grow if the economy deteriorates and the EU negotiations point to a bad deal for Britain.

The Independent understands that £1m in funding has already been pledged to the campaign, which could eventually focus on securing a second referendum on the exit terms that emerge after two years of UK-EU negotiations due to start next year.

Chuka Umunna is thought to have had talks with the group (PA)

One source involved in the campaign said: “A number of people from across the political spectrum, business community and voluntary sector have been talking about what can be done about the Brexit mess. Discussions continue.”

The group also includes two other New Labour cabinet ministers, John Hutton and Douglas Alexander, as well as three Downing Street advisers to Mr Blair – Sally Morgan, Peter Hyman and Kate Garvey. It is backed by Sir Clive Cowdery, an insurance millionaire who founded and now funds the Resolution Foundation think tank.

Also involved in the cross-party campaign are Stephen Dorrell, a former Conservative Health Secretary who was an MP for 36 years before he stepped down last year, and Labour MP and former minister David Lammy, who is working closely with anti-Brexit MPs and peers.

The group is understood to have held several meetings in recent months, although one source said progress so far had been slow.

According to the email, Virgin, the company founded and run by Sir Richard Branson, has pledged at least £25,000 towards the costs of the campaign. Other businessman, financial investors and campaign specialists are also involved.

One source said the aim of the campaign, which will launch formally in the new year, is to secure a second referendum on Brexit. The group is likely to work alongside Open Britain, the successor to the Stronger In official Remain campaign in the referendum, which now aims to ensure a soft Brexit in which Britain would remain in the European single market.

Despite the role played by several close Blair allies, the former Prime Minister is not directly involved in the new organisation. It is not linked to a not-for-profit institute Mr Blair plans to launch in the new year as he tries to return to domestic politics in order to influence the Brexit debate. He has argued that the public should be given a chance to change their mind on leaving the EU once the Brexit terms become known, possibly in a second referendum.

Pro-Brexit campaigners welcomed the involvement of Mr Blair, because they claim he is seen as “toxic” by many voters, and suggested it would undermine anti-Brexit efforts.

The apparent attempts to slow down the process of Britain leaving the EU comes after polls suggested some former Leave supporters had changed their mind and would now back a vote for Britain to remain in the EU. A BMG Research survey earlier this month found a small majority (51 per cent) backed Britain staying in the EU while 49 per cent still support Brexit.

A Virgin spokesperson said: “Since the EU referendum, Virgin has not made any payments to any Brexit campaign or organisation. It is well known that Richard supported the Remain campaign before the referendum, and as a result people involved in all sides of the debate are interested in Virgin’s views on Brexit and its impact on business. Virgin is interested in engaging with different organisations to understand the impact Brexit will have on the UK.”

Mr Umunna decided not to join the new campaign. Instead he set up Vote Leave Watch, a grassroots campaign to hold Brexit supporters to account for the claims they made in the referendum. He does not support a second referendum.

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