Keir Starmer

The cream-coloured Mayfair townhouse that is 34 Upper Brook St in London gives little away from the outside, other than a brass plaque bearing the name Hakluyt. But inside lies an opportunity for Keir Starmer’s Labour Party to embed itself deeper with the establishment.

Reports by the Bloomberg news agency that Labour has brought in the most secretive corporate intelligence firms to smooth relations with big business were met with silence from the party.  And with a robust and no doubt true response from Hakluyt, who said, “The Labour Party isn’t one of Hakluyt’s clients. We do not work for political parties.” 

Although the firm does accept that it has convened meetings attended by senior Labour politicians, along with other guests—which is also ­undoubtedly true. Either way, the firm has a few familiar faces for Starmer. 

Varun Chandra, Hakluyt’s ­managing director, has links to Labour—he used to write unpaid for a Labour website*—and worked at Lehman Brothers before helping Sir Tony Blair set up an advisory firm. Baroness Vadera, a former Labour minister and economic adviser to Gordon Brown, has a job at Hakluyt. 

So does Emily Benn, ­granddaughter of Tony Benn, who worked for Jonathan Powell, Blair’s former chief of staff.

But Hakluyt is ecumenical. The “about us” is a who’s who, boasting former chairmen of multinational companies, retired diplomats, and globetrotting bankers. Hakluyt is chaired by Lord Deighton, a former minister in David Cameron’s government, who is also chair of Heathrow Airport and the Economist Group.

He is one of several high‑­powered figures on the payroll. Former Unilever boss Niall FitzGerald and former HSBC chair and current Abrdn boss Sir Douglas Flint are members of the advisory board. 

So are former spy agency GCHQ director Sir Iain Lobban, former Sony boss Shuzo Sumi and Mark Wiseman, a former managing ­director at Blackrock. Dan Rosenfield worked as private secretary to Alistair Darling when he was Labour chancellor, and his Tory successor George Osborne. 

The former managing director of Bank of America then worked for Hakluyt.  While there he also worked as Boris Johnson’s chief of staff. Recent hires include Sir Oliver Robbins, the civil servant who was Theresa May’s “Brexit sherpa”, and Jamie Hope, a former security advisor to Liz Truss.

Chris Inglis, a former deputy director of the US National Security Agency and Joe Biden’s first National Cyber Director, joined last month.

Hakluyt claims to work with 40 percent of the world’s largest ­companies and three quarters of the top 20 private equity firms. 

It boasts, “For more than 25 years, leaders of many of the world’s most prestigious companies and most successful investment firms have turned to us for the judgement, insights and advice we provide in a wide range of situations.”

One lawyer who had used Hakluyt said, “They are packed with former spooks and have boards full of lords and ladies of the realm. The spooks gather intelligence, and the lords and ladies ensure it has respectability.”

No ‘spooky world’ connections” in company set up by spies  

Labour-linked Hakluyt boss Varun Chandra says Hakluyt has “no relationship with the spooky world, so that’s that”. The company was founded in 1995 by a group of “former” MI6 intelligence officers. 

It was named after the Elizabethan spy, Richard Hakluyt. It has a reputation as a retirement home for MI6 officers.

Its security guards are former Ghurkha soldiers guarding its deep leather chairs and wine cellar. Its website was for years just a picture of its business card.

It now has a fuller website, with profiles of partners, press releases and a sparse explanation of its emphasis on “discretion and independence of thought”.

Steven Fox, founder of Veracity, a competing firm, likens Hakluyt to a tailor. “It’s about making a bespoke suit and the difference is that they now want to make the bespoke suit in a way that you see how the tailoring is done,” he said.

On its own account partners tap a network of “several thousand well‑connected individuals”. Some of these individuals are paid, often very well. Other contacts are happy to share intelligence in exchange for occasional tickets to the opera or cases of fine wine.

One such “well-connected individual” was Neil Heywood, a British businessman who had started to work as a fixer for China’s wealthy elite. 

One of his clients was Gu Kailai, the wife of Bo Xilai, at the time the hot tip to make it all the way to the Chinese presidency. Instead Heywood was killed, most likely poisoned, and Bo Xilai and Gu Kailai imprisoned.

Firm spied on the climate movement

Hakluyt used a German intelligence agent to spy on Greenpeace and other environmental campaigners, and even the Body Shop, for oil companies.

Manfred Schlickenrieder—codenamed “Camus”— was paid thousands of pounds to pose as a left wing filmmaker while informing on activists. 

He had once been chair of the Munich branch of the German Communist Party. The spying operation for Hakluyt began in April 1996. 

Shell asked Mike Reynolds, one of the agency’s directors and a former MI6 head of station in Germany, to find out who was orchestrating the protests.

Michael Maclay was one of the agency’s then directors and former special adviser to Douglas Hurd when he was Tory foreign minister. 

He said at the time, “We don’t ever talk about anything we do. We never go into any details of what we may or what we may not be doing.”

BP and Shell claimed they were unaware of the techniques used by Hakluyt.

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