The company's official launch in March 2018 received little coverage, bar a brief write-up of an official press release announcing the by Politico magazine, which noted the venture was set up by two senior Republican lobbyists — Matt Rhoades, manager of Mitt Romney's failed 2012 Presidential bid, and Joe Pounder, former head of research for the Republican National Committee.
The article framed UK Policy Group as a "sister" firm to Definers Public Affairs, a controversial "opposition research" company based in Virginia, US. The organization made headlines in December 2017 when it was paid US$120,000 in a no-bid contract by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to build up dossiers of compromising information on "resistance figures", opposed to the policy agenda of Scott Pruitt, and President Donald Trump, the man who appointed him. Definers cancelled the contract in short order after its activities were exposed.
Politico's article failed to mention Definers shares at least nine current and former executives, as well as office space, with America Rising, a Republican-affiliated political action committee, which Rhoades and Pounder co-founded.
Primarily funded by ‘vulture capitalist' Paul Singer, America Rising states its "sole purpose" is to "hold Democrats accountable and expose any hidden hypocrisy," ensuring "they must account for every word and action." It has been frequently referred to as the "unofficial research arm" of the Republican party.
In practice, critics suggest this entails creating negative narratives around leading Democrat candidates in advance of major elections. The group already offers a large, alphabetized list of dossiers on its website, including Andrew Cuomo, Nancy Pelosi, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
The UK Companies House entry for UK Policy Group shows the firm was originally registered under the name UK Rising, and Nominet data indicates Definers registered the domain name UKRising.co.uk in November 2016, clearly aligning the new entity with America Rising, rather than Definers — and perhaps accounting for why UK Policy Group's website states it is "not a public affairs" company.
What's the Tory?
While UK Policy Group's website unambiguously states it works for corporate clients, not a single one of the men running the company has a significant private sector background. In fact, each of the five individuals standing alongside Pounder and Rhoades is intimately connected with the Conservative party.
Company vice president Andrew Goodfellow between May 2015 and June 2017 served as the Conservatives' Director of Policy and Research, having previously been a political adviser in the Conservative Research Department, where he specialised in opposition research. As well as working on the two most recent General Election campaigns, he has also worked in Parliament for a Conservative MP.
Pelham Groom, who "heads up the media monitoring war-room," joined UK Policy Group in July 2017 from Conservative Campaign Headquarters, where for a year he ran the Conservative Party's media monitoring operations. There, he worked on three national election and referendum campaigns, three local elections and ten by-elections.
Matthew van Horen previously worked for political strategists CTF Partners, a polling and market research firm, on national and international corporate and political campaigns — clients included the Conservative party. CTF Partners was founded by Mark Fullbrook — a long-time Conservative party election campaigner — and Lynton Crosby, a controversial Australian political strategist who has managed election campaigns for right-wing parties in several countries (including the UK Conservatives).
James Caldecourt was previously a Political Adviser in the Conservative Research Department, specialising in opposition research, and was part of George Osborne's team while he served as Chancellor of the Exchequer 2010 — 2015. He has worked on several national election and referendum campaigns in political, policy and operational roles.
Louis McMahon for two years worked for two Conservative government ministers, and previously co-authored a criminal justice report for the Center for Social Justice think tank, founded by Conservative MP Iain Duncan Smith MP in 2004.
While no reference to him can be found on the company's website, is also an advisory board member. Brannigan worked for Prime Minister Theresa May as director of government relations until the Conservative party's calamitous general election campaign in June 2017 — not long after, he established Kingsgate Political Communications, and joined UK Policy Group.
On June 14 2017, Grenfell Tower in North Kensington, London, erupted in flames — it caused 71 deaths and over 70 injuries, with occupants from 23 of the tower's 129 flats perishing. The housing block was situated in the parliamentary constituency of Kensington, which in a shock swing had elected Labour MP Emma Dent Coad six days previously.
The Conservative government and predominantly Conservative Kensington council were subjected to intense criticism by the UK public and media for months after the event — and Dent Coad was amongst the loudest detractors, arguing the Grenfell tragedy was a direct consequence of their inept governance.
However, the newly-elected MP soon became subject to a concerted backlash herself, emanating from right-wing blogs such as Guido Fawkes, and mainstream tabloids including The Daily Mail and The Sun. The outlets ran a series of negative stories about her — Guido Fawkes alone publishing 15 hit pieces — all based on tweets, blog posts and other social media activity Dent Coad engaged in, dating back many years in some instances.
Such tactics clearly evoke the services offered by UK Policy Group, and its "sister" companies America Rising and Definers — and Brannigan boasted to an undercover openDemocracy eporter at a 2017 fundraiser that his firm Kingsgate Political Communications was reponsible for the "Dent Coad stuff".
In a blog posted on UK Policy Group's website in March, cofounder Pounder slams the characterisation of "opposition research" services as "dark arts", instead preferring the label of "poking and prying with purpose". However, the firm may be unable to transcend that label, and perception, given it refuses to disclose who its clients are, what services they are receiving, which "opposition" figures, groups and companies are being researched and why, and whether their services truly are strictly corporate.