Firstly – let’s talk about Sirius Minerals. According to an article in The Guardian, Secretary of State for Housing Robert Jenrick, met with Israeli billionaire Idan Ofer in March 2018 while Jenrick served as exchequer secretary to the Treasury. The meeting between Jenrick and Ofer, the ultimate owner of UK mining firm Cleveland Potash, happened while Jenrick was determining whether to offer state support for a new potash mine being built by Sirius Minerals. The new mine would have posed serious competition for Ofer’s own mining operations. The application for funding was later rejected by the government.
A great deal of hope as well as hard cash has been invested in the plans for a £3bn polyhalite mine near Whitby, linked by an underground conveyor to processing plant on Teesside.
Conservative politicians have been happy to associate themselves with Sirius when it provided PR opportunities. Ben Houchen, Conservative Tees Valley Mayor, has talked about it regularly in the press and it being a sign of confidence in Teesside.
Sirius began asking for Government support for the project in 2018, with Ben Houchen backing their call for a loan guarantee. Robert Jenrick was assessing that request. But back in March 2018, Jenrick had met Idan Ofer, now acknowledged to be a “family friend”. Ofer was the ultimate owner of Cleveland Potash – a rival of Sirius, also aiming to grab a share of the global market for polyhalide fertiliser. So there’s a conflict of interest. Jenrick recognised this and eventually stepped aside from decision making regarding the Sirius aid request. What we don’t yet know is WHEN he told his officials, or when he last had any input into the decision making process.
In January 2019 Theresa May (then PM) confirmed that funding guarantees were being discussed between the Government and Sirius Minerals and that although details were commercially sensitive it was exactly the sort of project that the Northern Powerhouse is all about: driving investment, driving exports, good for the north. City broker Liberum responded positively – keeping share prices from tanking.
BUT, in March 2019, another firm belonging to Ofers (as explained above, the owner of Cleveland Potash, rival to Sirius, and friend of Robert Jenrick), Quantum Pacific UK Corporation, donated £10,000 to the Conservatives. They’d never given to the Conservative Party up to that point.
In September 2019, the government refused Sirius Minerals request for support. This left the company is serious difficulties, unable to raise further finances and the share price hit rock bottom.
Conservative Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen continued to be upbeat. In a statement, Houchen claimed that he was in daily contact with the Managing Director of Sirius and remained confident
In the run up to the December 2019 General Election, Simon Clarke was campaigning in Middlesbrough with Liz Truss. Reportedly, she was the one who picked up responsibility for deciding on the Sirius Aid request after Jenrick had eventually let go of the case, but Truss said “It’s not something I’ve made a direct decision on”.
So was she the decision maker? She doesn’t seem to be taking the credit (or blame) for it, but if it wasn’t her, and it wasn’t Jenrick, who was it?
Sirius by now was desperate to find a way to keep the project going, and had to accept a cut-price deal from Anglo American in January 2020. This wiped out the savings of thousands of small investors, many of them ordinary North Yorkshire and Teesside residents who’d been drawn to the exciting project right on their doorstep. Ofer could stand to gain from the delays and disruption to the rival Sirius plans.
So that’s the story of the Government failure to back Sirius. A failure that cost jobs, delayed the project – scaled back and only recently resuming work under the new owners – and led to many small shareholders losing their life savings.
But that is not all
This is not the first time Robert Jenrick has been involved in controversy – Mr Jenrick struggled to get planning permission for an extension to one of his London homes until Conservative councillors intervened to approve it.
In his current role as Secretary of State for Housing, Robert Jenrick is under pressure over allegations that he rushed through a £1bn development in order to help a wealthy Conservative Party donor save £45 million (money that would have gone to the local council). Jenrick had met Mr Desmond at a Conservative fundraising dinner and his decision on the development was challenged in the High Court over the ‘appearance of bias’. Jenrick did not contest the case. He still has his job as Secretary of State.
And this is the point, the idea that we are all in this together, that we have the same rules and abilities to influence decisions regardless of who we are is the biggest con in living history. Money talks. Friends in high places help each other. Look at Britain’s top 100 rich list, 1/3 of them are Conservative donors according to the Huffington Post. But it goes beyond this, it is about connections, friendships, schools you went to and clubs you were a part of. Which parties do you attend together, who do you sit next to at a fundraising dinner. Believe me, the Conservatives do not sit next to the likes of you and me. We are not in their club. We don’t get to influence decisions.
I want answers, not just in these decisions about Sirius, but in many other areas. We have a Conservative led Combined Authority that is spending millions and millions every year, investing in big projects with different businesses, people and corporations. I want to work on your behalf to ensure that there is accountability, integrity and ultimately fairness in all of those decisions. We have to be assured that decisions made in the best interests of Teesside people, not because a friend of a friend sat next to a politician at a dinner party. We are watching very, very closely.