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Liz Truss' PopCon and the UK's strangest (yet powerful) think tanks

Liz Truss (Getty Images)
Liz Truss (Getty Images)

Liz Truss, a walking mushroom cloud bobbing giddily along while laying waste to whatever is in her path, has launched a new think tank called Popular Conservatism, or ‘PopCon’. PopCon sounds almost fun, doesn’t it? It won’t be, other than in a nuclear hellscape kind of way. But it may well have an effect on Conservative policies and therefore on how the country is run (for this year at least), and therefore on, well, us. Because think tanks can be as powerful as they are mysterious, acting as semi-autonomous body of experts who conduct research and provide advice for political parties. There are a lot of them about. Here’s some of the most notable:

So Liz Truss’s PopCon is being billed not as a think tank but as a “movement” aimed at restoring “democratic accountability to Britain and deliver popular conservative policies”. Sounds like someone still has sour grapes. And that someone is bringing along members of her former blink-and-you-missed-it-but-still-have-to-suffer-the-consequences Cabinet, including Jacob Rees-Mogg. Among its aims are to restore trust to politics. Yes, Liz Truss wants to restore trust to politics. Maybe they can all have a good hard think about whether the electorate will buy that one.

Liz Truss speaks at the launch of the 'Popular Conservatives' movement on February 6, 2024 in London (Getty Images)
Liz Truss speaks at the launch of the 'Popular Conservatives' movement on February 6, 2024 in London (Getty Images)

Last month, a poll appeared projecting that Labour would win the next election by a huge majority, but that the Conservatives might have a chance if Rishi Sunak were replaced. After questioned were raised about who commissioned the poll, YouGov confirmed it was the Conservative Britain Alliance, a mysterious group with no web presence and a closed membership. Who’s in it? Well, the PM’s former advisor Will Dry for one, who warned “we are on course for at least a decade of Labour rule.” Rumours are more top MPs are involved, but Rees-Mogg has pleaded ignorance, “I don’t know who they are.” Are they even a think tank? Who knows? Good to know that shadowy organisations are organising take-downs of PMs though isn’t it?

Will Dry (Our Future Our Choice)
Will Dry (Our Future Our Choice)

The ERG are a Brexit hype-group within the Conservative Party that researches and co-ordinates activity for Eurosceptic Tories, and have been called a “party within a party.” The current chair is Mark Francois. He was one of the ‘architects’ of Brexit – a term which doesn’t quite fit the construction we have been left with, how about ‘shit shoveller’ - a man who in 2022 used the term “Japs” in the House of Commons, had a staring contest with Will Self on live TV, and once had listed on his expenses “several Peparami ‘hot’ 5 packs.” Oh, and in true Gareth Keenan-style, he was once in the Territorial Army and thinks he’s, like, a really hard soldier, once naming his campaign to get elected as a councillor, ‘Operation Basildon Storm’. The ERG were hit by a scandal in 2017 about them using public money for their expenses for which they were censured by an parliamentary watchdog, but if Francois can fork out for his own Peparamis surely it’s tally-ho to victory against the bloody foreigners for this glorious army, sorry, think tank.

Mark Francois in Downing Street (Aaron Chown/PA) (PA Archive)
Mark Francois in Downing Street (Aaron Chown/PA) (PA Archive)

The IEA has been called “the most influential think tank in modern British history,” and is renowned for pushing a neoliberal free market ideology. It was set up in 1955 by Antony Fisher who was - *checks notes* - a battery farming pioneer, and have caused controversy during its history for papers on climate change denial and not revealing their donors – though undercover reporting revealed that they’ve had – gasp - cash from the tobacco industry and BP. In 2021 they lost an Ofcom battle with James O’Brien after he said the registered charity – yes, they are – is a politically motivated lobbying organisation “for the vested interests of big business, fossil fuels, tobacco, junk food,” and was funded by “dark money” . He urged newspapers to stop quoting an organisation registered, “as an educational charity because they don’t reveal who funds them.” The IEA complained, “This bizarre ruling will be a boon to conspiracy theorists.” In February 2019 the Charity Commission formally warned the IEA for using its resources to campaign for a hard Brexit.

 (PA)
(PA)

New Labour were shaped into an Election winning ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ (except for the war crimes) unit by the think tanks Demos and the Institute for Public Policy Research. Keir Starmer is hoping that Labour Together can be the secret(ive) weapon. It’s director of research Christabel Cooper has said, “When we’re thinking about policy, we’re doing it very much with ‘what is the best policy that will also get Labour elected?’” Very reassuring. Also in Starmer’s ear are the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. The TBI are into public service reform and ‘forward-thinking’ tech-y innovations like more AI in education. Will they give Starmer some 90s Blair magic or give him some 2020s Blair revulsion? Time will tell.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer says he took ‘decisive’ action to withdraw support for Azhar Ali (Joe Giddens/PA) (PA Wire)
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer says he took ‘decisive’ action to withdraw support for Azhar Ali (Joe Giddens/PA) (PA Wire)