UK Politics

Top Tory aide joins firm working for pro-EU campaign

Flags in Smith Square Image copyright Reuters

One of the Conservative Party's most senior figures has taken up a role at the official polling company for the main campaign to keep Britain in the European Union, undermining the Tory party's commitment to remain neutral in the forthcoming EU referendum.

Stephen Gilbert, the party's current deputy chairman and the prime minister's political secretary for the entirety of the last Parliament, has taken up a role at Populus for two days a week.

Gilbert was the Conservative Party's director of campaigning at the 2015 election and since then has taken a leading role in planning the party's campaigns.

Gilbert's move calls into question his position as deputy chairman and member of the Conservative Party's board, which has agreed a position of neutrality in the forthcoming referendum campaign.

'Better off'

Populus provides polling, research and focus groups for the campaign for Britain to remain in the European Union, Britain Stronger in Europe (BSIE).

A spokesperson for Britain Stronger in Europe said: "We are pleased the Populus team working with Britain Stronger in Europe will include Stephen Gilbert.

"We're building a team of campaigning experts from across the political spectrum to reach people all around Britain and make clear that we're stronger, safer and better off in Europe than we would be out on our own."

But leading Conservative Eurosceptic Bernard Jenkin said: "I will raise this at the 1922 executive with the the three MP board directors at CCHQ."

Populus confirmed Gilbert's appointment and that he would be working for clients including Britain Stronger in Europe.

News that one of the prime minister's closest confidantes, still working at the top of the Tory party, is to help the Britain Stronger in Europe campaign flies in the face of a commitment to neutrality made by the Tory party board.

'Unpaid leave'

In September that board committed the party would take no side during the EU campaign.

At the time the Conservative Party said: "Conservative Campaign Head Quarters (CCHQ) will not supply funds or voter information to either campaign.

"CCHQ will permit its staff to work for either side in their own time, or by taking an unpaid leave of absence.

"Those who take unpaid leave will be able to return to their paid employment at the end of the campaign."

A Conservative Party spokesman insisted that Mr Gilbert's role at Populus was consistent with that policy: "Stephen Gilbert is working part-time for Populus separately to his role for the party and with agreement of the party chairman. In his role as deputy chairman he works three days a week having handed over day-to-day management of the campaign team to executive directors."

The spokesman also denied suggestions that Mr Gilbert would have access to privileged data on Conservative voters in his work for Populus: "He has no access to party data and is bound by the party's confidentiality agreements and data protection law. CCHQ will remain neutral during the EU referendum campaign. Staff are allowed to campaign for either side during their free time."

The move will infuriate Eurosceptics in the Conservative party ranks who believe the party should not take sides but who fear the prime minister will use the machinery of the party to campaign for Britain to stay in the EU.