The Cobden Centre was founded in 2010, by a group of right-wing thinkers and politicians, including the king of the so-called ‘Brextremists’, Conservative MP Steve Baker, who went on to become Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Exiting the European Union.
Named after the 19th-century liberal economist who campaigned against the Corn Laws, the Cobden Centre disapproves of almost all state intervention in the economy. This includes ‘quantitative easing’ – the technique that enabled central banks to save the world banking system from collapse during the financial crisis; in 2011, the Cobden Centre described this as a ‘crime’.
Named by Conservative Home editor Paul Goodman as 1 of 5 key people that made Brexit happen, Steve Baker was the Cobden Centre’s director until June 2017 and remains one of its trustees. He has regularly championed its work in the Commons, quoting Richard Cobden himself during a House of Commons discussion of the EU withdrawal bill in January 2018.
Baker was also chair of the European Research Group (ERG), the secretive cabal of hard-right Tory MPs pressing for a hard Brexit, prior to Jacob Rees-Mogg taking on this role in 2017. Naturally, he is also a fan of what he refers to as the ‘remarkable Legatum Institute’.
Baker resigned his position at the Cobden Centre before taking up a cabinet post at the Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU) in June 2017. Strangely, however, he had never declared his links to the organisation in the House of Commons Register of Members’ Interests, prompting Labour MP Ben Bradshaw to say: ‘Mr Baker is a cheerleader for the most extreme, damaging version of Brexit and has said the EU “should be torn down”. It now appears he is the director of a lobbying organisation that advocates the hardest of Brexits, but he has not declared the fact.’
This is not the only time Baker has displayed an unusually lax attitude to the rules designed to protect the integrity of the democratic process. As a leading figure within Vote Leave, he advised the organisation that ‘it is open to the Vote Leave family to create separate legal entities, each of which could spend £700,000: Vote Leave will be able to spend as much money as is necessary to win the referendum.’ This advice later led to the the Electoral Commission finding that Vote Leave had committed serious breaches of electoral law.
OpenDemocracy has revealed that as ERG chair Baker also received £6,500 from the secretive ‘Constitutional Research Council’ (CRC), the organisation at the centre of the so-called DUP ‘dark funding’ for the Brexit campaign.
The Cobden Centre has been a magnet for other key Brexiters. Its chair and co-founder Toby Baxendale described the organisation’s role memorably: ‘to go for the jugular of the state, to cut the oxygen and the blood supply off and force it to be honest’. Baxendale is also a Legatum Institute trustee and helped run Andrea Leadsom’s Tory leadership campaign.
The Cobden Centre recently welcomed Daniel Hannan to its Board of Directors. Hannan, a ubiquitous Brexit talking head, has been dubbed ‘the man who brought you Brexit‘. Significantly, it was Hannan who in 2012 asked Brexit Bad Boy Matthew Elliott, the founder of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, to set up the embryonic campaign group that later became Vote Leave.
The Cobden Centre has also been happy to publish the musings of characters such as Godfrey Bloom – the former MEP who defended his use of the phrase ‘bongo bongo land’, described Goldman Sachs as an ‘international Jewish Bank’, and branded a room full of women ‘full of sluts’.
The Cobden Centre is just one of the think tanks that helped spread damaging ideology and misinformation ahead of the Brexit referendum, disguising this to seem like the work of neutral experts. The power that these organisations have exerted over the political process was starkly underlined on 4 July 2018, when Steve Baker, the Cobden Centre’s co-founder, signed the first of a series of statutory instruments designed to enable the government to bypass parliamentary scrutiny of new legislation as it pushes the UK over the Brexit cliff.
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