LONDON — A Conservative election hopeful ran a public affairs firm which counted the Russian government and state-owned energy firm Gazprom among its clients in the 2000s.
Nigel Gardner was selected for the new Harpenden and Berkhamstead parliamentary seat earlier this month.
A former European Commission spokesperson, Gardner founded agency GPlus in the early 2000s before selling a majority stake to Omnicom in 2006. He retained his role working on the firm’s business strategy until his departure in late 2009.
Under the Omnicom banner, GPlus and sister agency Ketchum landed a deal with the Russian government in 2006, and Gazprom in 2007. The Kremlin contract was initially focused on media work around Russia’s presidency of the G8 — seen at the time as a chance for closer cooperation with the West.
A 2006 report from the Financial Times said the decision to contract the Western firms had been signed off by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Attitudes ‘were very different’
Speaking to POLITICO, Gardner said he was “completely happy” with the original decision to take the contracts, a choice he believed was “motivated by the right reasons at the time.”
“Attitudes to Russia were very different, it was a time when everybody thought we could do business with Russia … and they were on the path to being a respectable member of the community of nations,” he added.
That included the signing of a deal between the United States and Russia which was viewed as a precursor to granting the state World Trade Organization membership.
But diplomatic rows continued to mar Russia’s G8 presidency, with the country’s decision to cut off gas supplies to Ukraine in a row over prices leading then-U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney to accuse the state of using its energy might as “tools of intimidation and blackmail.”
The contracts also coincided with heightened scrutiny of Russia, following the high-profile murder of dissident journalist Anna Politkovskaya and the fatal poisoning in the U.K. of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006.
GPlus and Ketchum’s involvement with Russia came in for some criticism from campaign groups, with the Corporate Europe Observatory citing the move in a 2015 report about the “whitewashing” of regimes.
Gardner said that was “certainly not the intention” and that he did not recall negative press about the original decision. But he acknowledged that concerns did grow internally at the firm as the contract progressed.
Gardner said he was “completely happy” with the original decision to take the contracts | Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images
“Was it right to end the contract when we ended them? Yes. Should we have ended them a couple of years before then? Probably. So that’s probably where we got the judgment slightly wrong.”
Gardner would later go on to co-found public affairs firm Flint Global — where he remains on the board. The consultancy took up lobbying work for Chinese tech firm Huawei to help manage their exit from the U.K. market after a row over security in the U.K.’s 5G network.
While Gardner said his previous work had not come up in his Conservative selection meeting or on the campaign trail so far, the ex-lobbying boss said it was “absolutely right” for such questions to be raised because they are “about judgments.”
He describes himself now as “extremely hawkish … much more so than the mainstream of the government’s policy” on China, and says it’s “not at all” acceptable for firms to take on such Chinese contracts now.
“China is a huge, huge threat. … I’m gravely concerned about a lot of threat from China and Russia — and particularly from both of them together, which is unfortunately the way some of these national decisions are going at the moment,” he added.