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Matthew Elliott: we haven’t made the most of Brexit

The Vote Leave head on his new charity, the Tories’ election prospects and what Liz Truss got wrong.

By Rachel Cunliffe

British politics might look very different today were it not for Matthew Elliott. While his name may not be widely known outside Westminster, his influence over the past decade and a half is impossible to ignore. In 2011, during the Alternative Vote referendum, Elliott spearheaded the No campaign and helped ensure that the UK retained the first-past-the-post electoral system. Five years later, he and Dominic Cummings founded Vote Leave and led the Brexit campaign to victory.

Elliott’s lobby groups – the TaxPayers’ Alliance and Big Brother Watch, which were both run out of the same address on Tufton Street, Westminster – have had a significant influence on right-wing Conservative MPs over the party’s 14 years in power, not least Liz Truss. These efforts have not gone unrewarded: Truss nominated Elliott for a peerage in her resignation honours list, and on 20 February Baron Elliott of Mickle Fell, of Barwick-in-Elmet in the City of Leeds, will be formally introduced to the House of Lords.

But when I meet Elliott, 46, shortly before his ennoblement, we do not go to Westminster. Instead, he invites me to the heart of the City of London, to a sleek co-working space on Cannon Street, with stunning views of St Paul’s Cathedral and giant model animal heads made out of paper mounted like trophies on the walls of the communal meeting room.

This is the home of Elliott’s latest venture, the Jobs Foundation, a project that “champions the role of business as a force for good”. It’s what he has been working on since Covid-19 struck and, he wants to stress, could not be more detached from the vicious political infighting under way just a couple of miles west. It’s nothing to do with Tufton Street. It’s a registered charity rather than a lobby group. And most of all, it’s explicitly cross-party.

“I think looking back to all the different campaigns I’ve been involved in, the ones that work are the ones where you reach out across the spectrum and agree on an issue,” Elliott tells me. “And they’re the ones where you can really shift the dial.”

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The Jobs Foundation is about making the case for the private sector as a positive force in society: creating jobs, offering training, alleviating poverty – and, of course, paying taxes that fund public services. The organisation has produced a glossy factbook full of information on the transformative power of jobs: “securing a full-time salaried job reduces the risk of falling into poverty by 90 per cent”; “almost twice as many apprenticeships are offered by businesses in England than by colleges, schools and public bodies combined”; “more businesses mean less poverty”. The aim, it says, is to help businesses do even more by collating and sharing examples of best practice – Timpson, for example, has a focus on employing ex-offenders, while Pret a Manger has a dedicated scheme to train and employ homeless people.

It’s also, Elliott says, about communicating the positive role business can play. He recalls listening to the Confederation of British Industry conference in 2021 and being struck by the focus on “what we want for business… What you didn’t particularly hear in any of the speeches was what businesses do for society. No one talked about the virtues of job creation or the training business provides or the tax it pays or anything like that.”

He was determined to bring a non-partisan spirit to the executive team. His co-founder and chief executive Georgiana Bristol is a familiar partner, having worked at the Vote Leave campaign, the TaxPayers’ Alliance, NoToAV, as well as Business for Britain and Brexit Central, two other Eurosceptic groups established by Elliott. But he is also keen to introduce me to the Job Foundation’s new senior policy adviser, Nick Tyrone. Like Bristol, Elliott’s relationship with Tyrone goes back to the AV referendum – except Tyrone was on the Yes side. He then worked at the Liberal Democrat think tank CentreForum, and the pro-EU think tank British Influence.

“I’ve known Matthew for more than ten years and I’ve always really respected him,” Tyrone says when I ask about their surprising partnership. “I’ve worked with people on all sorts of different things across the political divide… We’ve all worked cross-party a lot. And actually when you do that, you recognise the effectiveness.”

Bristol, who was head of regional fundraising for the Conservative Party for nearly two years, enthusiastically concurs. “It’s just interesting having come from the SW1 environment, of course understandably people are like ‘you’re a Brexiteer, you’re a Remainer’. But so rarely does any business person that I ever speak to say ‘tell me about where you’re coming from on Brexit’ or anything like that.”

The Jobs Foundation officially launched in September, with speeches from the Education Secretary Gillian Keegan and the former Bank of England chief economist Andy Haldane. Tyrone is currently on a fact-finding tour of the country for a major report out later this year. The insistence on cross-party collaboration extends to the advisory council, which includes Jonathan Mendelsohn, the former New Labour fixer and lobbyist, and Richard Harrington, once a Conservative business minister. Among the business leaders listed on the website, you’ll find the Brexiteer entrepreneur Luke Johnson of Patisserie Valerie fame, and the Conservative donor and key Boris Johnson ally Peter Cruddas. But Elliott insists the Jobs Foundation transcends old divides.

“This issue is bigger than party politics,” he tells me. “For too long, the role of business in society hasn’t been recognised properly… getting people from poverty and unemployment and more deprived backgrounds into jobs, and social mobility, that hasn’t been properly recognised. And that’s more important than any one party.”

Elliott has been immersed in politics since he joined the Conservative Party aged ten. He took a year out after leaving school to work for his local MP, Timothy Kirkhope, during the 1997 general election campaign. Kirkhope lost, but their paths have continued to cross. “Timothy’s actually going to be one of the people who introduces me into the Lords,” he tells me – a political career come full circle.

Elliott has, however, never tried to become an MP himself, and says he believes the House of Lords is “more suited to my skills” as someone who is “really interested in policy”.

On the subject of the woman who put him there, Truss, he downplays their relationship. “I wasn’t involved in her leadership election campaign or in her time in government… I gave her a little bit of advice when she was secretary of state for international trade, got to know her then, so really it’s through that.”

But there is no denying his association over the years with the free-market project – championing low taxes and low regulation – that proved so disastrous when Truss pursued it. Today, UK taxes are at a record postwar high and the free-market movement is in tatters. What went wrong?

“If you look at the UK tax burden, it did start going up once I left the TaxPayers’ Alliance,” he jokes. “More seriously, I think one thing I’d take from the pro-market point of view is that you can’t just assume that the country is with you. If you talk about going for growth or expanding the pie or whatever phrase you use, you can’t just assume that voters will understand what you’re talking about.” Telling that story, of how private enterprise can help society, is a big part of what he hopes to achieve with the Jobs Foundation.

Elliott is also critical of how few achievements the Tory party can point to after 14 years in office. “Frankly that’s partly down to the fact that there has been the continuous change of leaders. It’s disappointing.”

He has no particularly warm words for the party following its two disastrous by-election defeats on 15 February in Kingswood and Wellingborough.

“I climbed Mickle Fell earlier this month,” he says, referring to the mountain in the Pennines, close to where his grandparents lived, that he has chosen as the place name of his new title. “And I was reminded of what Isaac Levido said about the path to victory being steep and narrow for the Conservatives. In Mickle Fell’s case, it’s both steep and there are no paths – you have to navigate your route to the top using a compass, and trudge through deep heather and peat bogs to get to the summit. I suspect that’s what the coming months will feel like for the Conservative Party.”

On Brexit, the cause he is best known for, Elliott is characteristically understated. “We haven’t made as much of the opportunities as we might have done.” Does he believe those opportunities are still there? “One hundred per cent, yes.”

In terms of temperament, Elliott comes across as the exact opposite of Cummings, his erstwhile Vote Leave colleague. Cummings took a centre-stage role after the referendum as Johnson’s chief aide, fell out with him spectacularly, and has a reputation for volatility and (as the Covid inquiry revealed) colourful language. Elliott, meanwhile, is more of a behind-the-scenes figure: cheerful, mild-mannered, and always meticulously polite.

The contrast between these two architects of the biggest constitutional upheaval in modern British politics in a generation was highlighted in the 2019 Channel 4 docu-drama Brexit: The Uncivil War, in which Benedict Cumberbatch starred as the maverick Cummings. Elliott was played by the Royal Shakespeare Company’s John Heffernan.

“He came to meet me, we gave him lunch, we chatted for two and a half hours,” he recalls – noting it was a somewhat surreal experience. “And during the course of that lunch, I didn’t particularly notice it so much, but my wife Sarah, she could see him studying me very closely and working out the different mannerisms, the different looks, getting used to the character.”

Since the tumultuous Brexit era, Elliott has stayed relatively detached from front-line politics. He and his wife, who specialises in conservative US politics and is a spokesperson for Republican Overseas, have two small children. With a seat in the Lords, though, Elliott has the opportunity to shape British politics for many years to come, through an anticipated Labour government and beyond. As he puts it: “I’ve got the political bug.”

[See also: Britain’s anti-Semitism problem]


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