UK

How an obscure intelligence-linked party fixed a second Brexit referendum and torpedoed Corbyn

The pro-EU Renew party emerged from out of nowhere at the height of “Corbynmania,” pushing for a second Brexit referendum that led to the Labour leader’s demise. The intelligence backgrounds of Renew’s founders were kept under wraps – until now.

When Britain’s little-remembered Renew Party officially launched in the heart of Westminster in February of 2018, its founders addressed a room of mostly empty chairs. The party’s youthful and little-known co-founder, Chris Coghlan, announced a bold pro-EU agenda centered on forcing a second Brexit referendum. 

Founded in the midst of a surge in popular support for the Labour Party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, Renew arrived on the electoral scene at a time when the British establishment feared a genuine left-wing takeover of 10 Downing Street. While its launch initially attracted mockery from the press, with The Sunday Times describing it as a “damp squib,” Renew eventually played a decisive but hitherto unacknowledged role in Corbyn’s downfall. 

During the 2017 General Election, Corbyn won significant support on a manifesto endorsing Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union. But by 2019, a not insignificant component of the party’s platform was convening a second referendum on London’s EU membership, which set him and the party he led up for a historic defeat. 

His reversal was at odds with the electorate’s majority will, and a great many of Labour’s working class supporters. As such, in December 2019, Britons elected effusively pro-Brexit former mayor of London, Boris Johnson, while Labour suffered its most crushing defeat since 1935. Corbyn resigned as party chief the very next day.

While Corbyn’s support for a Brexit do-over during the 2019 General Election is typically viewed as a well-meaning but dangerously misguided political miscalculation, a closer look at the origins of the campaign for a second referendum reveals a far more sinister plot. 

Indeed, calls for a second referendum did not originate from the British grassroots, but rather from the obscure Renew. As this investigation will reveal, Renew was established by operatives with deep, cohering ties to Britain’s military and intelligence establishment, including a long-standing psychological warfare specialist.

The backgrounds of Renew’s founders and the malign activities they conducted against Corbyn appear to validate the deposed Labour leader’s insistence that the British intelligence apparatus was “deliberately undermining” his ambitions. 

A pro-EU party forms in the midst of “Corbynmania”

In the immediate aftermath of his election as party leader in September 2015, a legion of Labour MPs, party grandees, journalists and pundits branded Corbyn “unelectable,” and unacceptably “radical.” Those establishment forces were blindsided when Britons voted to approve Brexit in June of 2016, setting the stage for a tumultuous General Election the following year.

The results of that election were nothing short of extraordinary. After starting the campaign polling at just 25 percent, Corbyn ultimately captured 40 percent of ballots cast, coming within just 2,227 votes of victory. Having increased Labour’s share of the national vote by 10 percentage points from the previous election, Corbyn’s performance dealt Theresa May’s Conservative administration a fateful blow as it reentered Brexit talks, this time as an impotent minority government.

The upswell in support, which represented Labour’s highest swing in a general election since its historic landslide in 1945, was assisted at least in part by Corbyn’s adoption of a pro-Brexit platform. 

Though he narrowly failed to take over 10 Downing Street, Corbyn’s surprisingly strong performance forced his detractors among Britain’s bureaucratic and media class to view him as a serious threat. Faced with the possibility of a genuinely progressive Prime Minister, these elements launched an intense, closely coordinated effort to subvert his electoral prospects. 

The months following the 2017 General Election were defined by what even mainstream outlets dubbed “Corbynmania.” As Theresa May and her ministers struggled with the arduous process of negotiating the terms of London’s exit from the EU with officials in Brussels, Corbyn appeared to find his footing as Britain’s official opposition leader.

Throughout that summer, enormous, electrified crowds welcomed Corbyn wherever he went. He was so popular, when he addressed the famed Glastonbury Festival just weeks after the General Election, The Guardian reported he drew “the biggest crowd of the weekend.”

“Corbynmania shows no signs of fading,” the paper subsequently observed. As the establishment grappled with the unforeseen catastrophe sweeping the nation, Renew quietly registered with Britain’s electoral commission.

When its leaders officially announced their arrival on Britain’s political scene the next February, no grassroots followers attended the event. 

“I guess there’s an element of inexperience,” Chris Coghlan, one of Renew’s founders, explained with embarrassment. “We thought a press conference was for the press. It hadn’t occurred to us to fill up the room with our supporters. In hindsight that might have been a good idea.”

Renew co-founder Chris Coghlan

From the murky military-intelligence world, a “New Macron” emerges

So who is Chris Coghlan, and from where did the seeming political novice emerge? 

Coghlan became a minor public figure for running a failed “independent”campaign for parliament in the 2017 General Election, in the key Labour target constituency of Battersea. A year later, he founded Renew alongside James Clarke, James Torrance, and Sandra Khadhouri. Like Coghlan, Clarke and Torrance had each run their own ill-fated bids for parliament during that campaign, likewise in crucial Labour targets — Bermondsey and Old Southwark, and Kensington — on vehemently pro-Remain platforms.

According to Coghlan and his colleagues, Renew was a Third Way-style project designed to “challenge complacency at the heart of British politics” and represent “politically homeless” voters. Billing itself as a Remainer “anti-establishment” alternative to Labour and the Conservatives, Renew centered its platform on a push to stay in the EU by initiating another Brexit referendum.

From its outset, the quartet’s political strategy seemed misguided, if not downright bizarre. Just months before Renew’s founding, the aggressively pro-EU Liberal Democrats had failed to sway the electorate in spectacular fashion, with 82.4 percent of voters supporting the UK’s two main, Brexit-supporting parties, the highest total combined percentage for Labour and the Conservatives since 1970. 

Then again, both Coghlan and Khadhouri were curious characters to form and lead an “anti-establishment” movement.

Branded by local media as a potential “New Macron” — a reference to the billionaire banker-turned-unpopular French President — Coghlan hailed from the heart of the British security and intelligence establishment. In fact, he quit a senior counter-terrorism post at the Foreign Office a mere week before launching his independent bid for parliament in May 2017.

Claiming to have resigned from Labour in response to Corbyn’s vow to remain party leader irrespective of the election result, the then-36 year old opened his campaign with an appeal to the political center, slamming Labour’s “left fantasy policies,” and pledging to fight Brexit “with everything” he had.

A Foreign Office official who spoke to The Grayzone on the condition of anonymity said it would have been virtually impossible for someone in such a sensitive position, with a history of conducting high-level counter-terror work, to carry out this breakneck career shift on a whim. British civil servants are precluded from engaging in commercial and partisan political activity, and once they leave their posts, they are required to undergo a cooling-off period before doing so as private citizens.

According to the official, Coghlan’s immediate entry into politics would have required permission from departmental superiors well in advance. In any event, the official considered his trajectory highly unusual, if not completely unprecedented.

No reference to counter-terror credentials is made on Coghlan’s LinkedIn profile. Instead, he designated himself as a Foreign Office “diplomat” between 2015 and 2017. As sociologist David Miller, a leading critic of Britain’s national security apparatus, explained to The Grayzone, this could be an indication of a more shadowy affiliation.

“Countering terrorism is one of the three official ‘core areas of focus’ for MI6, but not the Foreign Office,” Miller commented. “Its officers work undercover, publicly presenting themselves as ‘diplomats’, usually giving no precise details of where they work in order to maintain cover. Given Coghlan’s wider background and the lack of clarity on what he was doing, it would be unsurprising if he was actually working for Britain’s foreign intelligence service during his time as ‘diplomat’.”

Aside from his “diplomatic” work, Coghlan is also a long-time British Army reservist. He was mobilized to serve in Iraq under Operation Inherent Resolve, the US-led military intervention against ISIS, as recently as April 2020.

Coghlan’s professional links reveal further connections to Britain’s covert intelligence networks. One of his primary LinkedIn endorsements was provided by James Blair, a member of the notorious British Army psychological warfare unit 77th Brigade. Another user who endorsed Coghlan’s “risk management” skills also happens to be a 77th Brigade reservist. 

The LinkedIn profile of Coghlan’s Renew co-founder, Sandra Khadhouri, is similarly mysterious. It indicates she began her political activity in Britain immediately after leaving a post as “strategic communications” advisor to NATO’s mission in Georgia. While there, she “advised and helped train” Georgian government officials in information warfare techniques, “especially on security-related issues and countering misinformation.”

Moreover, Khadhouri boasted that between October 2010 and November 2013, she “took part in large-scale military exercises with NATO’s Allied Rapid Reaction Corps as a civilian adviser,” while participating in “several military training modules” at Britain’s elite Defence Academy and Permanent Joint Headquarters.

That training came on the heels of Khadhouri’s 11-year stint in the British government’s spook-infested Stabilisation Unit, which has participated in regime change operations in Syria, Libya and beyond. During this time, Khadhouri was reportedly “available to be deployed abroad, for short or long-term assignments.”

Curiously, none of this background was ever mentioned in media reports exploring her role in the newly-established Renew Party. Instead, Khadhouri was invariably referred to as a “former UN worker.” Even more peculiarly, today she makes no mention of Renew, let alone her hand in founding the party or time serving as its leader, anywhere on her online resume. 

The entry on Khadhouri’s bio covering the period between October 2017 and March 2020 simply states she provided “strategic advice, campaigning and media support to a range of pro-EU political parties and campaign groups,” during that time, implying she was in fact an external public relations consultant during this period to a consortium of clients, of which the Renew was just one. 

Renew: “Remain’s more military arm”

During Renew’s official launch in February 2018, its co-founder James Clarke described the party as the EU Remain campaign’s “more military arm,” an unintentionally revealing characterization given the unacknowledged records of Coghlan and Khadhouri.

Following its kick-off event, Renew conducted a whirlwind nationwide tour in the UK, visiting dozens of towns and cities, addressing school children, and convening events large and small in an attempt to recruit candidates and whip up public support for a second Brexit referendum. 

These activities generated unprecedented amounts of press coverage, with European media bolstering comparisons between Coghlan and French President Macron. Meanwhile, Khadhouri caught the spotlight from outlets such as the BBC and Sky, and even debated the rabidly pro-Brexit Nigel Farage on his LBC show. 

Such instant, excited domestic and international coverage was highly abnormal for a fledgling political party in Britain, especially given none of its representatives were established politicians, let alone public figures.

In all their media appearances, Renew’s founders were keen to frame the party as having been founded in response to a vast groundswell of support for a second EU referendum. However, they were frequently forced to acknowledge this proposal actually had extremely limited public appeal.

For instance, in a local media report on a party visit to Wales, Renew’s head of strategy, James Torrance, conceded that, “for most people Brexit is not the most important issue in their lives,” with healthcare, housing, jobs, and social care being of infinitely greater concern.

The centrist Atlantic Magazine also expressed doubts about Renew’s viability in February 2018, arguing that the most pressing question in British politics was not whether Brexit would come to pass, but what form it would take. The Atlantic predicted Renew had no hope of achieving an electoral breakthrough in future general elections as long as its platform centered purely on remaining in the EU. 

A researcher from the elite British defense think tank, Chatham House, informed The Atlantic that any attempt to reverse the Brexit referendum’s result “would severely damage levels of trust in our political system, particularly among Leave voters.” The researcher instead advocated for a “compromise” policy that respected “the democratic outcome of the vote” while ensuring a diversity of voices were represented in Brexit negotiations with Brussels. 

This was precisely the course of action Corbyn took when he initiated cross-party talks with May’s government in April 2019, only to be branded a traitor by the Remain camp. 

The previous year, as local UK elections neared, Coghlan authored a bombastic op-ed for The Times of London claiming that he quit his Foreign Office role because he was “demoralised by the failure of our politicians to deliver opportunity in government, fight Corbyn and a hard Brexit.” He said he resigned despite having been “proud to protect our citizens from suicide bombers.” 

According to Coghlan, Renew was standing in forthcoming elections in order to “make Corbyn listen to the overwhelming majority of Labour voters and offer a second referendum,” and to usher in “a tech revolution to leave no one behind.” Though he offered no concrete policy steps, Coghlan claimed such a “revolution” would resolve Britain’s housing crisis, reverse climate change, eradicate extreme poverty, and even cure cancer.

The Renew co-founder made up for his grand vision’s lack of detail with swagger, boasting that he and his allies “already have enough parliamentary candidates to stand everywhere in the country next general election [sic].”

Renew co-founder shares address with anti-Corbyn military-intelligence front

Despite Coghlan’s confident public pronouncements, Renew stood just 16 candidates in the local elections. Every single one of them lost, and badly. Three weeks later, he abruptly quit the party under unclear circumstances.

Coghlan promptly joined Bulldog Trust, an organization that ostensibly provides financial and advisory assistance to charities. The group operates out of London’s historic Two Temple Place, the same building that houses the secret headquarters of the notorious Whitehall and NATO-sponsored think tank known as the Institute for Statecraft.

At that time, the Institute for Statecraft served as a front for the Integrity Initiative, a covert black propaganda outfit disguised as a media research project that was directed by military intelligence professionals. The Institute became embroiled in national scandal in late 2018 when its internal documents leaked online, and it was discovered to have smeared Corbyn as a “useful idiot” of the Kremlin, a flagrant breach of state funding rules.

Those files reveal that at precisely the same time of Renew’s official launch, the Institute for Statecraft invited Glen O’Hara, Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Oxford Brookes University, to deliver a detailed presentation at Two Temple Place entitled “Who Are the Corbynites, and What Do They Believe?”

Below is a slide from that presentation; the full document can be viewed here.

O’Hara’s presence at the Institute and the organization’s preoccupation with Corbyn is notable given the group’s clandestine role in the creation of the 77th Brigade, the aforementioned Army propaganda unit in which some of Coghlan’s most ardent professional allies proudly served. 

In other leaked documents, the Initiative boasted of its effort to “help the [Armed] Forces become more competent to fight modern war with all kinds of weapons.” According to its own records, Integrity Initiative’s assistance to the British army included aiding “the creation of special Army reserve units (e.g. 77th Brigade and Specialist Group Military Intelligence) with which we now have a close, informal relationship [emphasis added].” 

The Integrity Initiative went on to explain these information warfare units recruited “people whom the Army could never afford to hire, but who donate their time and expertise as patriots.” Several academics from Oxford Brookes University were enlisted to assist Specialist Group Military Intelligence, suggesting O’Hara’s presentation represented one example of how the British Army was taught to “fight modern war with all kinds of weapons.” 

That Corbyn was firmly in the crosshairs of Britain’s military establishment following his election as Labour leader is abundantly clear. A leaked presentation given to members of the Army’s 72 Intelligence Corps in 2016 dedicated an entire section to dissecting the Labour leader’s “views,” including his opposition to NATO and the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. 

An accompanying slide (below) asserted that Corbyn’s rise would lead to “less focus on the military,” noting he “opposes military involvements and defence spending.” 

The only other topics explored in the leaked presentation were the war in Syria and EU refugee crisis. Evidently, British military brass considered Corbyn’s leftist views equal to the threat posed by armed conflict and human catastrophe. This perspective is hardly insignificant. An official description of the 72 Intelligence Corps says it “provides commanders at all levels with intelligence products and predictive intelligence analysis in order to inform their decision-making.”

As such, 72 Intelligence Corps is charged with using “information gathered from a wide variety of sources to create a profile of the enemy [emphasis added]; their locations, key figures and tactics,” and “assess what the opponent’s courses of action are and predict what will happen next.” They are also responsible for safeguarding Army and Ministry of Defence “assets” from “traditional and non-traditional threats.” Corbyn was it seems viewed as one such “threat.” 

Coghlan’s background and connections suggest he may have been privy to these briefings. Which in turn raises an even more obvious question: was Renew an organic political initiative, or a military intelligence operation deployed against Corbyn and the progressive movement he represented?

Mission accomplished, Renew folds into wider Remainer push

Undeterred by their woeful 2018 election showing and Coghlan’s departure from the party, Renew’s remaining adherents continued their nationwide political crusade for several months. Come February 2019 though, when disaffected Conservative and Labour MPs founded the pro-EU Change UK party in February 2019, Renew stood down its candidates in the impending European election. In response, Change UK hailed Renew’s “worthwhile and meaningful endeavours” as an inspiration for its own pro-Brussels agenda.

Despite Renew’s effort to level the pro-Remain playing field, in the event Change UK secured just 3.3% of the vote and splintered not long after, with six of its members defecting yet again. 

The outcome was inevitable. The month that Change UK launched, academic Richard Johnson published detailed analysis which determined that winning over “Leave-voting Conservative marginals” would be fundamental to a Labour victory in the 2019 general election.

Of the 64 seats the party needed to win in order to secure a parliamentary majority, 45 were in England and Wales, all held by Conservatives, of which 78% voted in favor of Brexit. 

“One of the most striking facts about British politics since the referendum is the reasonably consistent support for Leave and Remain,” Johnson cautioned. “EU referendum vote choice stands out for its stability.”

Considering the lack of popular support for its central platform, the clear motivation behind Renew’s launch was to lend bogus grassroots legitimacy to the call for a second referendum by way of a new political party. The party was especially necessary after the pro-Remain Liberal Democrats tainted themselves with a five-year stint in coalition with the Conservatives.

Rewew’s role in paving the way for Change UK was also an undeniable achievement. As Coghlan explained in an April 2019 New Statesman op-ed, Renew was not simply created to win power, but in the hope that “moderate MPs would split into a new centre party and oppose Brexit,” and thus “catalyse Change UK.”

Strangely, Corbyn and his advisors failed to consider whether those leading the push for a second referendum were truly motivated by their adoration for Brussels bureaucrats, but instead a determination to scupper Labour’s electoral prospects. 

Corbyn’s commitment to a second Brexit referendum should be regarded as one of the gravest political missteps in recent British political history. Rather than provide a popular alternative to the Conservative government’s floundering Brexit negotiation process, Labour aligned itself with a nascent, fringe political movement borne of the very elite British voters sought to reject. 

And they may have engaged in this act of willful political suicide with a quiet but concerted nudge from the intelligence services which saw Corbyn’s ascent as an existential threat.

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