At a time of widening climate crisis, Claire Coutinho has secured her ascent to the commanding position of secretary of state for energy security and net zero – perhaps the most critical ministerial portfolio in an era of unprecedented energy costs, crippling inflation, and ecological disaster. Described as “exceptionally” close to the PM, and linked to groups well known for their climate scepticism, Coutinho is the sixth candidate to hold the post since 2019.
Coutinho assumes her role at a time when British politics, under the current government, has been degraded and reduced to the generation of clickbait headlines and, through confecting a US-style culture war, incessantly sought to inflame divisions across society.
Newcomers such as Coutinho must be all too aware of the company they have elected to keep, as well as the strategies at play. In the interests of healthy democratic process, can such people be trusted anymore to put the country above personal ambition?
From City banker to think tanker
A daughter of economic migrants before the term became stigmatised, Coutinho graduated with a master’s from Oxford in maths and philosophy. She then followed the well-trodden path into the City to work for Merrill Lynch before leaving the world of finance to work in the sphere of social justice.
Coutinho left a prosperous career to work for Iain Duncan Smith’s think tank, the Centre for Social Justice. An example of the social justice this group advocates is increasing the retirement age from 67 to 75 by 2035, effectively ending the UK state pension. Duncan Smith is a member of the net zero scrutiny group and a signatory of last year’s open letter in favour of fracking.
The new secretary of state spent two full years learning statecraft from this group before moving on to a housing industry group.
Formerly a senior fellow at the opaquely funded Policy Exchange, Coutinho has maintained her links to the think tank. As recently as July of this year, she delivered a talk to the Policy Exchange on ‘freedom of speech’ in universities where she declared, “It was your report on ‘Academic Freedom in the UK’ that planted the seeds for our higher education (freedom of speech) bill”.
Policy Exchange is listed as one of the least transparent think tanks in terms of its funding, but openDemocracy uncovered the fact that their American fundraising arm received a sizable donation from American oil giant ExxonMobil. The think tank drafted the law to heavily penalise climate activists.
Coutinho became programme director for the Housing and Finance Institute, funded by the City of London Corporation, the Home Group and multinational construction company Laing O’Rourke whose projects include mining, natural resources and oil and gas.
A hop skip and a jump later via a stint at KPMG, she became a special advisor at the Treasury where she met Rishi Sunak.
Spurred by a conviction to help deliver Brexit “from the inside”, she was propelled by the Johnson machine to become a Conservative Party candidate in the 2019 election. Every one of them had to pledge to back his Brexit deal. She was given a safe seat after her predecessor Sam Gyimah could no longer stomach what his party had become and had fled to the Lib Dems. Coutinho could stomach it very well and was duly elected MP for East Surrey.
Just one month after being elected she accepted the first of two financial donations from Rory Brooks, co-founder of MML Capital Partners who are the financial backers of private healthcare provider Vanguard Healthcare. Brooks is also a director for Coutinho’s old think tank, the Centre for Social Justice.
Other financial backers include two unincorporated associations. Electoral Reform UK described unincorporated associations as shadowy dining clubs when it comes to political finance in the UK, due to the lack of transparency surrounding their fundraising activities. The East Surrey Business Club and The Tandridge Club gave Coutinho £8,000 between them declared in 2020.
In April of this year, the new secretary of state accepted donations from Graham Edwards, co-founder and director of one of the UK’s leading private water and sewage disposal companies Castlewater. Edwards is also chair of Telereal Trillium, Britain’s largest private property firm and he owns a stake of at least 23% of an Australian mining company MRC which, having announced plans to extract titanium from South Africa, faced a violent dispute with locals in 2016.
He was appointed treasurer of the Conservative Party in 2022 before becoming embroiled in a tax avoidance scandal.
Errors of judgement
In March 2020, Coutinho defended Dominic Cummings when he decided to up and make his way to County Durham with his wife and child when everyone else was housebound during the Covid pandemic, and then to make a further trip to Barnard Castle to test his eyesight. She opined that he “deserve[s] our compassion”.
Cummings gave an unprecedented press conference from the Rose Garden of Downing Street. Although his conduct was widely condemned as arrogant and inappropriate, Coutinho felt moved to defend him. She rightly faced a backlash.
Liz Truss saw fit to give Coutinho her first break. In the shortest and most rapidly disastrous ministry ever, Coutinho served under Truss as under-secretary of state for disabled people, health and work. A tenure that, for obvious reasons, did not last long.
A confluence of warning signs?
Coutinho is the youngest and the first MP from the 2019 intake to become a secretary of state. As the secretary of state for energy security and net zero, she has a vital and highly politicised post.
She appears to have reached her position partly as a result of her association with some of the most opaquely funded think tanks in the country. Think tanks which, it has been noted, receive funding from fossil fuel interests and other undisclosed interest groups. In December of last year, along with her former boss Duncan Smith, she signed an open letter against the ultra low emission zone proposed for London.
Given her provenance, it remains to be seen whether Coutinho intends to serve the interests of the electorate, or the interests of those whose opaque funding pressurises governments to act in the interests of their donors. As the two are rarely in alignment it will be instructive to see how she chooses.
Editor: Article updated 5 September 2023 to remove the reference to the Centre for Policy Studies, which previously stated that they publish “papers downplaying the reality of climate change“. While this was the case originally, before Graham Edwards joined the team there, more recently the think tank’s position has been accepting of climate science.