- Qatar wanted a Conservative chair of the APPG ahead of the World Cup, sources have claimed.
- Former minister Alun Cairns was deemed “preferable” to incumbent Alistair Carmichael, these sources said.
- Doha also suggested a new secretariat, and the hedge fund firm Argo Capital Management was then installed, the sources said.
The Qatari foreign ministry said it wanted the chair of the UK all-party parliamentary group (APPG) to be dropped in favour of a Conservative MP, and to replace the long-term secretariat, sources have told Insider.
Both wishes seem to have come true: Tory former minister Alun Cairns was elected as chair earlier this year, with Argo Capital Management, a hedge fund, appointed as secretariat of the group.
The claim has sparked concern from transparency campaigners, who said that this appears to be an example of the loosely-regulated system of parliamentary groupings being “hijacked.”
The changes to the APPG come alongside increased efforts by Qatar to burnish its reputation ahead of hosting the 2022 World Cup, which has been marred by accusations of workers’ rights abuses, most recently that conditions “amount to forced labour”.
MPs have accepted £220,000 worth of trips funded by Qatar since the start of 2021, official records show.
Insider spoke to several sources involved with the APPG, who believed that Qatar had triggered changes in its parliamentary chairman and also its secretariat — the external body that helps manage the group.
The sources spoke to Insider on the basis of anonymity to speak frankly about their concerns.
One person connected with the APPG told Insider that its former chair, the Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael, stepped aside after the Qatari government suggested it would be “preferable” for it to be chaired by a Tory. Another source said Carmichael had been “eased out”.
A third party recommended Alun Cairns, a Conservative MP and former Welsh secretary, to the Qataris, who then put his name to people in Westminster, two sources said.
Carmichael’s departure led to the first of two hotly-contested elections. The first, in spring 2021, saw Cairns beaten by another Tory, Sir David Amess, who one attendee said “packed out the meeting” with his supporters.
Amess served as chairman for only a few months before being stabbed to death by an IS fanatic in October 2021 in his constituency.
This prompted another election in January 2022, which Cairns narrowly won. In an unusually-well attended meeting, he beat another Tory, David Mundell, 46 votes to 45, as reported at the time by the Guido Fawkes blog.
One source told Insider: “The embassy was very happy [with Carmichael] but somebody in Doha decided they wanted it done differently. As is often the case when dealing with countries that are not parliamentary democracies they don’t understand how things work here.”
Another said: “It came from Doha … The end result was that it was made known to Alistair that they wanted a Tory chair, and it had been decided in Doha … David Amess got elected anyhow, which upset their plans because it certainly wasn’t David Amess they had in mind.”
Asked if Qatar had expressed a desire for Cairns, specifically, to take over, the source said: “Yes.”
The source also told Insider that Qatari officials suggested a change to the secretariat — the body which acts as a liaison between parliamentarians, the embassy and Qatar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Previously the role had been held by Chris Doyle, director of the Council of Arab-British Understanding, who helped found the APPG 20 years ago.
After Cairns took the reins, the secretariat passed to Argo, an emerging-markets-focused hedge fund, the APPG’s registration details show.
One of Argo’s directors, Jeremy Bradshaw, is listed as the point of contact for the Qatar APPG. He did not respond to Insider’s requests for comment.
—Qatar Tribune (@Qatar_Tribune) February 11, 2022
Bradshaw, also the point of contact for the Conservative Friends of China, once stood unsuccessfully as the Tory candidate for Regent’s Park & Kensington North. He runs the Britain Club, a right-wing political “salon”.
Bradshaw is a long-time friend of Nigel Evans, deputy speaker of the House of Commons and honorary president of the Qatar APPG. He is also listed as a patron of the Britain Club.
One Labour MP told Insider Bradshaw had been “hanging around” on a Qatar APPG visit — which took place beforeArgo was listed as the secretariat — but had been evasive about his presence.
“He was at every meeting, and I said to him ‘could you just explain your role?’ and he said ‘why?’,” the MP told Insider. “I asked him if he was paid, and he said ‘no, no, well maybe, sort of, not really.”
Two other sources noted the unexplained involvement of another person in recent weeks.
Dominic Armstrong, president of strategic intelligence firm Herminius, took part in a recent APPG trip to Doha, two sources said.
“For some reason, he seemed to be running some of the activities for the MPs,” said one, who suggested Armstrong had put together a “parallel programme” that included at least one lunch with a senior Qatari official, Ali Al Thawadi.
The source added: “Some people amongst the delegation were clearly aware who [Armstrong] was — others were not.”
Armstrong, brother of the British TV personality Alexander Armstrong, appeared to be the host of the lunch, welcoming delegates and joining the top table alongside Al Thawadi and others. It was only after it had concluded they realised it was “actually not under the auspices of the British Embassy at Qatar”, the second source said. It is not clear how he obtained the delegates’ contact details.
On its website, Herminius boasts about “operating in some of the most complex environments”, with businesses “for whom confidentiality is essential”. Armstrong is also the founder of a geopolitical hedge fund called Horatius, and he helped set up the intelligence arm of private security company Aegis with Colonel Tim Spicer in 2002.
Armstrong’s name also appears in Department for International Trade records from January to March 2021. He met investment minister Lord Gerry Grimstone alongside representatives of Rolls-Royce, a member of Qatar’s ruling family Sheikh Sultan al Thani, and the same Qatari official — Ali Al Thawadi — “to discuss a potential investment opportunity”.
In December, the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA), announced plans to invest £85 million in Rolls-Royce SMR Limited, to help develop a new nuclear power business.
This deal was referenced during the Doha lunch, two sources said. Rolls-Royce’s chief technology officer and chairman of the SMR division Paul Stein has also addressed the APPG this year.
—QatarAPPG (@QatarAPPG) January 18, 2022
Armstrong told Insider he was in Doha, but said: “I have nothing to do with parliament, politics or any APPG delegations … I was indeed in Doha, but entirely on my own business — I didn’t join any political meetings, that’s not my world.”
He added that “the only hosting I did” was a dinner with a former Rolls-Royce executive on Sunday evening, alongside “a retired soldier, someone in London property and an economist”.
Armstrong confirmed he had acted as an adviser on the Rolls-Royce deal.
Neither Cairns nor Bradshaw responded to several requests for a comment. No one from Argo, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Doha or the Qatari embassy in London responded to requests for comment.
Steve Goodrich, head of research and investigations at Transparency International UK, told Insider: “While all-party parliamentary groups can play a valuable role in Parliament, they are currently at risk of being hijacked to advance the interests of companies and foreign governments.
“There are perilously few controls on who can administer or support APPGs, leaving them wide open to infiltration and potential influence by those with vested interests. In order to avoid the next big lobbying scandal, there should be much greater openness and accountability over how these groups are run.”
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