The day after Kherson became the first major city in Ukraine to fall to the Russian invaders, a member of the British House of Lords and former government minister was insistent that there was no good reason to distance himself from his favorite oligarch, his employer.
As the survivors in the Black Sea port began to bury their dead in mass graves, and with Ukrainian media claiming that 11 women of Kherson had been raped by Russian soldiers, Lord Barker of Battle said on March 4 that, “whatever the optics,” he would not resign as executive chairman of En+, a green-energy-and-metals company founded and part-owned by the newly sanctioned Oleg Deripaska, which he had joined in 2017.
He was thinking only about the employees, Barker explained, and their need for his leadership, not his $4 million bonus. Barker, 56, who became a lord in 2015 after serving in David Cameron’s government, was criticized by senior members of his Conservative Party.
“I think Lord Barker should explain why he works with people like Deripaska,” said Ben Wallace, the secretary of state for defense. In 2020, the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee accused Deripaska of acting as “a proxy for the Russian state and Russian intelligence services,” claiming he had “managed and financed influence operations on the Kremlin’s behalf.”
In 2018, Wallace, who was then security minister, had refused to meet two Conservative peers, one of whom was Barker, to discuss “government assistance for Russian associates” after En+ and Deripaska were subject to sanctions over the Salisbury nerve-agent attack that March. A House of Lords investigation cleared Barker of wrongdoing.
He soon showed his worth to Deripaska by negotiating a deal in which the Russian cut his stake in En+ to 44.95 percent, from about 70, in order for the U.S. to lift sanctions. For this Barker was rewarded with bonuses that took his pay in 2019 to $7.8 million. Deripaska has denied the alleged basis for sanctions: Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and “other hostile acts.”
In 2020, the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee accused Deripaska of acting as “a proxy for the Russian state and Russian intelligence services.”
Four days after fighting the horrendous optics, Barker announced he would be stepping back as executive chairman of En+ but would remain at the group to oversee a restructuring aimed at distancing the company’s global interests from Russian control. For some this was still not enough, given Deripaska’s close links to Vladimir Putin. Sir Iain Duncan Smith, who became leader of the Conservative Party shortly after Barker was first elected, in 2001, said he should be stripped of his peerage if he had been “aiding and abetting” the oligarch.
The Ties That Bind
Barker’s connection to Russia goes back more than 20 years, to before his election as the M.P. for the East Sussex constituency of Bexhill and Battle, the former a sleepy seaside town described by the comedian Spike Milligan as “the only cemetery above ground,” the latter the site of William the Conqueror’s victory over the English Army of King Harold in 1066. His selection was opposed by the outgoing M.P., Charles Wardle, who accused him of not being transparent about his links to Russia, and he was challenged at the election by Nigel Farage, the future leader of the pro-Brexit U.K. Independence Party, who got 8 percent of the vote.
Perhaps because of this, Barker brought up his Russian interests in his maiden speech as an M.P., saying that he had spent “two fascinating years working for a large corporation in Russia, at the front line of efforts to reform and reinvigorate the post-Soviet economy.” This was as head of international-investor relations for Sibneft oil (now Gazprom Neft), then owned by Roman Abramovich, who, like Deripaska, was hit with sanctions after the invasion of Ukraine.
Barker, who had lived in Moscow, praised the “terrifying” general-management test scores of his colleagues, while adding that “their ability to think creatively, to be radical and to take personal responsibility and initiative had been completely drilled out of them by an overbearing education system.” The flicker of individualism that is the catalyst of wealth creation, he added, had been “completely extinguished.”
As an M.P., he positioned himself on the modernizing wing of the Conservative Party. One of the first to support Cameron when he stood for leader in 2005, he convinced him to adopt the clothes of environmentalism. The party changed its emblem from the torch of liberty that had served Margaret Thatcher to a solid oak tree and campaigned under the slogan “Vote blue, go green.”
Barker arranged for Cameron to fly to the Arctic in 2006, where he posed with huskies to warn about the threat to the environment. “People thought ‘WTF,’” Barker later said. “Most hadn’t heard of climate change.” Less successfully, Cameron dabbled with installing a wind turbine on his London home, optimistic given the gentle breezes in Notting Hill, and began to cycle to work, attracting mockery when it was discovered that his briefcase was following him in a car.
Awarded the climate-change brief when Cameron became prime minister, in 2010, Barker spoke nebulously about wanting Britain to become “the Saudi Arabia of green energy” and about wanting London to become “the global hub of green finance.” Cameron himself, however, soon tired of what he came to call “green crap,” realizing that it was too costly, and unpopular with many in his party.
Sir Iain Duncan Smith, who became leader of the party shortly after Barker was first elected, in 2001, said he should be stripped of his peerage if he had been “aiding and abetting” the oligarch.
Barker’s progressive leanings attracted different headlines in 2006, when the father of three left his wife of 14 years for a male interior designer. A year later, he had an unsuccessful meeting with Arnold Schwarzenegger, with a British newspaper reporting that the governor of California had been unimpressed by Barker’s bringing along his nine-year-old son to take minutes. “He thought the guy was a schmuck,” an aide to the governor was quoted as saying.
Less polite things were said by government officials in Westminster when Barker used their kitchen microwave to warm a cushion for his dachshund, Otto, whom he took to meetings. When that story broke, someone sent a letter threatening to cut off Otto’s legs. “The poor chap is short enough already,” Barker said.
Barker was sacked in a ministerial reshuffling in 2014 and did not run in the next election. He was given a peerage by Cameron in 2015, when he had already got eight consultancies and directorships, many related to the energy sector. Steve Pound, a Labour M.P., was skeptical about Barker’s devotion to the legislation side of being a peer. “How can you put someone in the Lords who hardly has a spare five minutes a week?” he asked.
What he was doing was no different to George Osborne, Cameron’s chancellor of the Exchequer, who built a lucrative portfolio of jobs after standing down as an M.P. in 2017, including the editorship of London’s Evening Standard newspaper, owned by the Russian businessman and son of a former K.G.B. officer Evgeny Lebedev, who was given a peerage in 2020 by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, a frequent guest at Lebedev’s house in Umbria. He was given the title “Baron Lebedev, of Hampton in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames and of Siberia in the Russian Federation.”
Osborne also knows Deripaska, having controversially been a guest on his $105 million yacht off the coast of Corfu in 2008, where he was accused by a fellow guest, and old university friend, of trying to solicit an illegal donation. Osborne denied the allegation, saying they were merely discussing politics over tea.
Fast-forward 13 years, however, and eyebrows were raised last September when Osborne’s first coup after joining the boutique investment bank Robey Warshaw was to secure the firm a role advising En+, presumably with Barker’s aid. It is understood that Robey Warshaw no longer has any involvement with En+.
In 1986, a long-forgotten BBC sitcom called Comrade Dad, which imagined that the Soviets had invaded Britain, changed the name of the capital to Londongrad. Almost 30 years later, Londongrad was the name of a TV series on the Moscow-based station STS about an agency that could fix anything for Russian clients in Britain. By then, however, British observers of the relationship between politicians and oligarchs wondered if it was more a documentary than a comedy.
Patrick Kidd has been a writer for The Times (of London) since 2001. He has written the Diary column since 2013 and has published a collection of work from his time as parliamentary sketch writer, The Weak Are a Long Time in Politics