On the sun-drenched patio of the
Marriott Hotel in Copenhagen sat the chancellor of the exchequer. He sat
quietly and listened carefully as a distinguished older gentleman gave him what
appeared to be an intense and barely-interrupted 25 minute briefing. George Osborne sat
and listened, while we stood and watched.
The body language was fascinating. George was tense, leaning in, petitioning. The man opposite was physically relaxed but full of gestures and explanations. George was there to listen hard and get up to speed. Apart from a two-minute speech at the end, he opened his lips barely a dozen times, and half of those were simply to have a sip of his fruit punch.
The gentleman with his back to us, slouching comfortably in his chair, is an important, extremely well connected, but not very well known individual: Sir John Kerr. Otherwise known as Baron Kerr of Kinlochard. The current vice-chairman of Scottish Power.
At Bilderberg, Sir John always seems to be at the centre of things: when Princess Beatrix of the Netherlands emerges onto the patio, it’s Sir John who leads her out. When no one else will have a drink with Richard Perle, Sir John steps up:
Patting shoulders, pressing the flesh,
ushering people together: Bilderberg is his domain. Sir John is a member of the
Bilderberg Group’s inner circle – the steering committee – and probably its
heaviest smoker. The only thing with more tar in it than Sir John’s lungs is
Peter Thiel’s hair.
Here’s a lovely portrait of Sir John, enjoying a pre-dinner cigarette on the riverfront terrace. I think it shows showing how delighted he is to see the photographers camped outside the conference.
Sir John used to be one of the UK’s
top civil servants: he was head of the diplomatic service, and served as ambassador to the US and the EU.
One of the architects of European integration, he was in charge of the secretariat that drew up the first draft of the European constitution, and famously hid under the table during the Maastricht negotiations, passing up handwritten notes to John Major. Out of sight, but right in the centre of power.
Major likened Sir John to Machiavelli in his memoirs, and was clearly terrified of the man. He memorably said: “When Kerr comes up to you and asks for the time, you wonder why me and why now?”
After wrapping up his career in public service, Kerr hopped gracefully into the City, and was until recently deputy chairman of the most Bilderbergian company of all, Shell Oil. As well as his role at Scottish Power he is a board member of Rio Tinto, the multinational mining company.
Half diplomat, half corporate creature, Sir John is the ultimate behind-the-scenes powerbroker – a barely visible fixer, in whom the public and private spheres are perfectly melded. He’s Bilderberg incarnate.
And in the power dynamic between Sir John and the chancellor, Sir John is quite clearly the boss. It’s impossible to know exactly what he was saying during their confab, but I think the gist of it was how high George has to get off the ground when Sir John says “jump”.
Anything higher than that’s fine.
Anything less, and he’ll take George’s feet off at the ankles.
After a time, a couple of conference organisers came over to the pair and gave them a heads-up about the cameras. Sir John ushered George inside to continue their meeting, while out on the patio other Bilderberg briefings carried on apace.
Over at one end of the terrace, the Swedish foreign affairs minister, Carl Bildt (left), was being given some international advice by a member of the international advisory board of Goldman Sachs, Professor Victor Halberstadt.
While at another table, the head of the
IMF, Christine Lagarde, was discussing fiscal policy with the economist Kevin
Warsh, who’s on the board of logistics giant UPS.
The man in the middle of the shot, hidden
by Warsh’s helpful hand, is Paul Achleitner, the chairman of Deutsche Bank and
board member of Bayer pharmaceuticals. He’s at Bilderberg to make sure
that whatever Lagarde does at the IMF, it’s for the best. The best
for Deutsche Bank and Bayer pharmaceuticals.
That’s what’s so great about Bilderberg: besides the larger briefings, there are all these quiet opportunities for politicians and policymakers to be set on the straight and narrow by international bankers and corporate leaders.
About 10 minutes after guiding Osborne into the blessed privacy of the hotel, Sir John re-emerged and had a few terse words about the press cameras with one of the conference organisers.
That look he’s giving us – you can see why
it gave Major the jitters. It could cut tin. I’m going to go out on a limb
here and say he doesn’t like us. Which is a shame, because he’d be a useful
friend to have. He can get you free tickets to the Rio Tinto Christmas party,
or an invitation to Bilderberg – but you’d have to behave.
It only remains to be seen if Osborne declares his half-hour one-to-one with Sir John in his quarterly ministerial declaration of meetings with external organisations. He definitely had the meeting. That much we could see. And Sir John is entered on the official conference participant list as “Deputy Chairman, Scottish Power” – which definitely counts as an external organisation.
What we witnessed wasn’t the pair of them bumping into each other in a corridor, it was a serious chat. And it happened to be at least partially transparent to us: so will it make it into George’s transparency data? We’ll know in about four months. And if it does, then what about all the other meetings he’s had during his stay in Copenhagen? And what about the ones at last year’s meeting in Watford?
He can’t just say "Chatham House rules" and expect a free pass. That’s like making up a rule in a playground game that suddenly makes you invisible. “If I say ‘Chatham House rules’ you can’t see me!” Sorry, George, we can see you perfectly well. You should have had your meeting with Sir John in the hotel sauna. Or did Princess Beatrix have it block-booked?
Oh, and if you’re reading this on your way back to Westminster, Justine Greening, the same applies to you. Let’s find out if the ministerial transparency declarations mean anything at all.
In his declaration for the period covering last year’s Bilderberg conference, Osborne covered the three-day meeting with heads of banks and giant corporations with the words: "June 2013, Bilderberg Conference, General discussion." Ever so slightly better than nothing, but not by much. A vague, unattributed “general discussion” utterly fails to describe what goes on at Bilderberg.
What happens at Bilderberg is official government business, and the meetings that take place here shouldn’t be treated any differently from any other ministerial meetings.
And if it’s not official business, why have so many of the ministers brought ministerial aides? Why did Bildt bring along the deputy director-general at the Swedish foreign affairs ministry, Jessica Olausson?
And if Sweden’s deputy director-general at
the ministry for foreign affairs is attending the conference, how come her name
is not on the participant list? Is she just in Copenhagen to carry Carl’s
newspapers? Is that her, striding across the Marriot patio, or have I imagined the whole thing? It’s not impossible I’ve gone bananas, I haven’t
slept much the last three nights: too busy staring at photos of Sir John Kerr
and his acolytes. It’s enough to turn the mind.
Not to mention the stomach. Although that could be the jar of marinated herring fillets I’ve just eaten. I wouldn’t rule them out – that’s all I’m saying.