Newcastle United: Government 'not involved' in Saudi Arabia-backed takeover bid

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image copyrightGetty Images
image captionThe consortium had agreed a £300m deal to buy Newcastle United

The government has denied it was involved "at any point" over a Saudi Arabia-backed group's failed bid to buy Newcastle United.

However, officials acknowledged that meetings had taken place between the Foreign Office and the Premier League.

Downing Street said a senior aide was asked to check on the progress of the deal but not intervene.

It follows a Daily Mail report that the prime minister was contacted after the £300m deal ran into difficulties.

A government spokesman said: "While we welcome overseas investment, this was a commercial matter for the parties concerned and the government was not involved at any point in the takeover talks on the sale of Newcastle United."

Newcastle United and the Premier League declined to comment.

image copyrightAFP
image captionThe CIA believes that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi

The Saudi Arabian-led consortium, which included sovereign wealth fund PIF, PCP Capital Partners and Reuben Brothers, had agreed the deal to buy the club from Sports Direct boss Mike Ashley last April.

The takeover was being scrutinised under the Premier League's owners and directors' test as to whether Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman would effectively have owned the club.

The Daily Mail has reported that the prince wrote to Boris Johnson saying he expected the Premier League to "correct and reconsider" a "wrong" conclusion that he would have been in charge.

The PM's official spokesman confirmed Mr Johnson asked Lord Udny-Lister - a Middle East expert and a long-standing aide dating back to his days as London mayor - to check on the progress of the talks, but he did not ask him to intervene.

image copyrightUK Parliament/Jessica Taylor
image captionBoris Johnson asked Lord Udny-Lister to look into the progress of the takeover

The takeover group, which described itself as an "autonomous and purely commercial investor", withdrew from the deal in July, blaming the Premier League's "unforeseeably prolonged process" for the collapse.

The Premier League previously said its board had "on a number of occasions, given its opinion about which entities it believes would have control over the club" if the consortium had continued with the deal.

Analysis

Alistair Magowan, BBC Sport

Aside from any government lobbying row, there is huge significance to the Daily Mail's claims about Newcastle's potential takeover.

The Saudi-backed consortium has been quiet for months since it pulled out of any purchase last July. Despite owner Mike Ashley's claims he still wants to sell to the consortium, the key hurdle to the takeover has always been the level of the Saudi state's involvement, which has led to a dispute with the Premier League, and could yet go to arbitration.

The club's case is that Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman is separate to the PIF, which is backing the £300m deal, and therefore would not run the club and be subject to the league's owners and directors' test.

But if the Mail story is true and Bin Salman contacted the PM about the takeover, it would be hard to deny he is not heavily involved.

There are also questions for the government. It says it has not been involved in the takeover. But why then did Boris Johnson write a letter to a supporters' group last August asking for the Premier League to offer "more clarity" on what happened to the deal?

Giving evidence at a select committee of MPs in April 2020, Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said it was for the Premier League alone to make assessments of potential acquisitions of football clubs under its owners and directors' test.

image captionLabour MP and Newcastle fan Chi Onwurah has called for transparency

Foreign Office minister James Cleverly has previously said two virtual meetings were held between the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the league over the takeover.

Chi Onwurah, Labour MP for Newcastle Central, said "as a Newcastle United fan" she was "tired of all the different stories", adding: "We don't seem to be hearing what has actually happened."

She also said she wanted "transparency and clarity" over the Premier League's rules and "what has happened with Newcastle United".

The government's denial of involvement comes amid a lobbying row over former PM David Cameron and the failed finance firm Greensill Capital.

It has sparked a wider debate over private companies' attempts to influence ministers and officials.

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