LONDON — Set in a maze of streets flanking the Palace of Westminster, the red brick townhouses of Tufton Street are anonymous; no corporate logos attempt to catch the curiosity of passers-by. In fact, the street itself is usually deserted. But this sleepy facade conceals a welter of activity. For the past decade or more, Tufton Street has been the primary command center for libertarian lobbying groups, a free-market ideological workshop cloistered quietly in the heart of power.
In September, it stepped out of the shadows. The “mini-budget” presented on Sept. 23 by Kwasi Kwarteng, Britain’s finance minister and key ally of Prime Minister Liz Truss, clearly owed a debt to Tufton Street. Claiming that “higher taxes on capital and labor have lowered returns on investment and work, reducing economic incentives and hampering growth,” Mr. Kwarteng took a sledgehammer to Britain’s economic consensus, announcing billions in tax cuts, particularly concentrated among the richest.
The plan spooked the financial markets, sent the pound crashing and forced the Bank of England to intervene to halt a run on Britain’s pension funds. It was, in economic and political terms, a disaster — something made plain on Monday by the government, in an attempt to mitigate the damage, scrapping a planned tax cut for high earners. But the package was more than folly. It was the consummation of plans designed on Tufton Street, and of an alliance with Ms. Truss stretching back years. Under her watch, Britain has become a libertarian laboratory.
Those plans are, in outline, very simple. The libertarian groups based on the street — by the latest count, there were six of them (with two more close by) — operate as a coordinated nexus of policy wonks and media whisperers. In the words of Shahmir Sanni, who worked for the Vote Leave pro-Brexit referendum campaign originally based at 55 Tufton Street, they have one basic instinct: “that anything funded by the state is wrong.” Shrinking the state, cutting taxes and ushering private companies into the public realm are their guiding principles.
In Ms. Truss, they found a friend. After a youthful dalliance with the Liberal Democrats, the new prime minister’s belief in small-state libertarian politics has been a mainstay of her political career. In 2011, just a year after entering Parliament, she created the “Free Enterprise Group” of backbench Conservative lawmakers “to renew the case for genuine free markets and free enterprise.” As environment secretary, she embraced austerity, insisting that funding cuts for her department were “a big opportunity.”
Appointed head of international trade, Ms. Truss seized the chance to staff her operation with libertarians. In October 2020, just a couple of months before the start of Britain’s new life outside the European Union, Ms. Truss appointed several pro-Brexit, free-market figures to advisory bodies in her department. Among them were Mark Littlewood, the head of the Institute for Economic Affairs; Matt Kilcoyne, at that time the deputy director of the Adam Smith Institute; and Robert Colville, who runs the Center for Policy Studies. Daniel Hannan, a key architect of Brexit, had been appointed as a trade adviser a month earlier. His think tank, the Initiative for Free Trade, was formerly based at 57 Tufton Street.
This battalion of free-market thinkers has now been welcomed into 10 Downing Street. Five of the new prime minister’s closest advisers are Tufton Street alumni, including Ms. Truss’s chief economic adviser and her political secretary, and at least nine Tufton Street alumni are scattered across other major government departments. Tellingly, Mr. Littlewood says that Ms. Truss has spoken at his think tank’s events more than “any other politician over the past 12 years.”
The political imprint made by these groups, whose stalls have proudly lined the Conservative Party’s annual conference this week, may be relatively easy to track. But the way in which they operate is not so clear. Notoriously opaque about their sources of funding, something they defend as a right to privacy for donors, they have been found by investigative reporters to have financial links to the oil giants BP and Exxon Mobil, big tobacco companies and American libertarian groups. But the picture depicted is only partial. We simply do not know who is bankrolling the groups now at the heart of the British government.
That’s a problem, for the power they exert on British democracy — arguably now at its zenith under Ms. Truss — is considerable. First and foremost, they are significant operatives in Conservative circles: The Center for Policy Studies, for example, claims that it was “responsible for developing the bulk of the policy agenda that became known as Thatcherism.” Given that Margaret Thatcher herself co-founded the think tank, it’s not an idle boast. In the decades since, groups like it have multiplied as the Tufton Street network evolved from a pseudo-academic forum to an orchestrated lobbying outfit whose influence stretches well beyond the Conservative Party.
Spokespeople for these organizations are familiar to even casual consumers of British politics, such has been their ubiquity on television in recent years. It’s common for a representative from these groups to appear on flagship current affairs programs, blandly presented as an impartial expert. There are striking parallels with America, where — as described by Jane Mayer in “Dark Money” — libertarian billionaires fund an assembly line of anti-tax, anti-regulation politics, gamely diffused through the media. In setting the terms of political debate, skewing perceptions of the state and the economy to the right, it has been a remarkably successful strategy.
For Britons, their bills high, real wages falling and welfare state likely soon to be cut, U.S. parallels will be of little consolation. Under Ms. Truss, once nicknamed the “human hand grenade” for her ideological obduracy, the libertarian right has detonated the British economy. The cost, for all but the richest, could be incalculable.