The political disruptor

Jon Moynihan: The flamboyant businessman who played a key role in Brexit

Profile

On a summer evening in June 2016, five days after the referendum result had been declared, a celebratory drinks party took place in the back garden of a large house in Chelsea. Rupert Murdoch was there. Especially prominent were Vote Leave’s business backers, among them Peter Cruddas, Anthony Bamford and Helena Morrissey. The evening had the air of a cast party marking the culmination of a successful West End run, the cast reliving the best bits of the concluded drama before going their separate ways.

Surveying the 200 guests from the top of the garden steps was Daniel Hannan, who had as much right as anyone there to see the vote for Brexit as the culmination of his adult life’s work. 

Beside him on the steps stood the party’s host, the president of the Royal Albert Hall. “The test of patriotism,” Hannan suggested to him, “is how much you do without recognition.” Then Hannan added, “and it is you who has done the most with the least recognition.”

The architects of Brexit are many — and can be found in the index of all good published accounts of the campaign — but the role of Jon Moynihan has gone largely unrecorded. Yet, in the estimation of those with the most battle scars to show, it was this man, variously described as “flamboyant”, “argumentative”, “bullying”, “high energy”, “iconoclastic” and “persuasive, convincing and fun”, whose sacrifice for the cause has proved least commensurate to its recognition.

Efforts to identify unifying threads bonding Vote Leave’s backers are doomed to get knotted around exceptions. But like those who in the 1975 Conservative Party leadership election were drawn to Margaret Thatcher against Edward Heath, the “insider-outsider” is a common characteristic. Seemingly part of the same privileged milieu, they consider themselves to be semi-detached from it through background, experience or temperament. There are elements of this in Jon Moynihan who, in turn, owed much in his own career to the kindness of one of those early Thatcher-backing “insider-outsiders,” Gordon Reece. 

A television producer with considerable public relations nous, Reece played an instrumental role in sharpening Thatcher’s style and communication skills. His role was no less transformative for Moynihan, whom Reece first met as a somewhat adrift 16-year-old studying at Reece’s alma mater, Ratcliffe College, a Catholic boarding school near Leicester. Thereafter, Reece and his wife Elizabeth showed enduring thoughtfulness to the young Moynihan, who later conceded that he had found the couple almost unbelievably glamorous and that Reece was “like a second father” to him.

Working for Track Records gave him an early taste for disrupting the self-serving business models of dominant corporations

After graduating from Oxford in 1970, he eschewed more conventional paths for a Balliol man by joining Track Records, where he worked with Kit Lambert, the manager of The Who. There, he put in long hours implementing Lambert’s plan to shake up the music industry. 

The enemy was the “majors” like EMI and Polydor whose grip on distribution allowed them to squeeze out a far greater profit margin at the expense of the artists. Sending empty supermarket cartons around the country by rail allowed Lambert and Moynihan to work out the real cost of efficient distribution and then set up a system that could supply in-demand records to the shops within 24 hours, rather than the weekly deliveries that the majors typically offered. 

Track gave Moynihan an early taste for disrupting the self-serving business models of dominant corporations. Such was the success of this approach that the majors survived by adapting, cutting their distribution share and giving more of the proceeds to the artists — which proved the greatest legacy from the brief insurgency. 

In the resulting carve-up, Moynihan departed the record industry, choosing instead to run an Indian cholera hospital teeming with refugees from war-torn Bangladesh.

There he worked 20-hour days in wards experiencing a 20 per cent death rate, then going on to organise a mass vaccination programme on the border. His reward was to be deported when the Indian government took exception to an article in a youth magazine, the Junior Statesman, that depicted him as a “white saviour”. 

Hitchhiking back to Britain via Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq, Moynihan joined Save the Children and duly found a way to sneak back into India where he worked tirelessly on projects to build 130 schools in an area that had been devastated by tidal waves. In doing so, he began to recognise his talent for organising other people. The 23-year-old effectively had 10,000 working under his direction. 

To this, the Britain of the three-day week to which he returned, offered a dose of sobering realism. Moynihan could not get a job. America was his future. Reece advised him to apply to Harvard Business School. Short of funds, Moynihan opted instead for its neighbour, MIT, which offered a shorter (cheaper) course. 

Unable to secure a bank loan, Moynihan misled MIT into believing he could finance his studies. The gamble paid off because when he arrived in the US he discovered there was such a thing as a student loan. Taught by five Nobel Prize winners, he digested the theories and maths that he subsequently applied when he was taken on by McKinsey.

Successive postings and consultancy firms followed in Amsterdam, Washington DC and New York. The Eighties proved sufficiently bounteous that by 1992 (when he was still only 44), Moynihan’s mind was beginning to turn to how he would be spending his retirement with his wife, the New York-based milliner Patricia Underwood. Instead, he was persuaded to return to Britain to become CEO (and subsequently chairman) of PA Consulting.

He would not have agreed to take the helm had he known the true extent of PA Consulting’s problems. The firm was effectively bankrupt. He was astonished to find that having once been a sector trailblazer, PA Consulting had lapsed into an extraordinary collectivist mindset and a flatlined hierarchy (senior management excepted). A recipe for talent misallocation, most job titles and ranks had been abolished. Presiding over this playschool for clever people was a management cadre with a subsidiary board. Bonuses were made pensionable for those who left within a year — a good incentive to bank one’s winnings and be off, especially since the bonuses that year were particularly high.

Lured by the perverse incentives to leave PA and the further reward of being hired by competitors, more than 1,000 employees departed. Moynihan therefore only made one surgical strike: within weeks the head of HR was gone. Next he shut the pension fund for new entrants, before closing it down entirely. In seeking to turn PA from a trust into an employee-owned company, he encountered the full fury of the trustees. These he outmanoeuvred by resigning. It was a risky tactic, which in normal times would have been an act of seppuku. But PA Consulting was in such crisis that the sight of its CEO washing his hands of it risked a worse fate. 

A counter-petition demanded his return, allowing him to transform the consultancy into an employee-owned company. With an appropriate incentive structure instated, its fortunes soared. In 2015, two years after Moynihan finally did step down, Carlyle Group took a majority stake (with the employees retaining their ownership share), valuing it at $1 billion.

By then, Moynihan had thrown himself into what was to become the battle for Brexit. Having written with Richard Heller a prescient paper on the euro’s destabilising potential, he was one of the founding members of Business for Britain (BfB) in 2013. David Cameron’s Bloomberg speech in January that year had raised the prospect of a future renegotiation of the terms of Britain’s membership of the EU, followed by an “in/out” referendum. Much would intercede beforehand, including the uncertainty of another general election and how fundamental any subsequent renegotiation would prove.

Of the various pressure groups envisaged by Matthew Elliott, Daniel Hannan and Rodney Leach to influence that debate, BfB (of which Elliott was chief executive) was the most important. Given its composition of 500 businessmen and financiers, it was also the group most capable of marshalling the funds necessary if a referendum was to happen. 

But first it needed to set the yardstick by which Cameron’s renegotiation could be adjudged a success or failure. As the chairman of BfB’s editorial board, Moynihan helped pull together the 1,000-page blueprint, which examined, sector by sector, the UK’s exposure to EU policy and options for future reform. It was also Moynihan who came up with the title, Change or Go

This title perfectly encapsulated the position that held together the (non-Ukip) wing of Eurosceptics in the run-up to the renegotiation. If any one document could be said to show that Eurosceptics did have a plan for what Britain’s future relationship to the EU should be, Change or Go was it.

Had Cameron secured the repatriation of powers of key (let alone all of) Change or Go’s recommendations then both Hannan and Elliot believe he could have fractured the core team behind what became Vote Leave. But the prime minister preferred not to risk rebuff from Brussels. In doing so, Cameron answered BfB’s question as to whether he believed the EU was capable of change from within. BfB duly declared for Leave, with Moynihan serving on Vote Leave’s board, campaign committee and business council.

Having previously been involved in multiple charitable fundraising successes, including as the chairman of Balliol’s campaign, Moynihan threw himself with characteristic energy into supporting Elliott’s building of a war chest to reach the £7 million spending limit set by the Electoral Commission. 

This could not surmount the £9 million of taxpayers’ money at the government’s disposal, but it could equal the sum spent directly by the “Stronger In” campaign. Not only was this money needed to fight the campaign, it was an important virility symbol that helped Vote Leave beat its cash-rich Nigel Farage-backed rival, Leave.eu, for the designation as the official campaign group.

Elliott as chief executive and Dominic Cummings as campaigns director ran the campaign with discipline and ruthless message management. Yet, for all the disagreements, the consensus of those who worked with Moynihan during the tense weeks of the referendum campaign was that he was a central figure, not only in keeping the staff motivated but also in ensuring that the cashflow was accounted for and accessible where it was needed. With victory, Moynihan was content to host a party, but not to seek the limelight.

After the battle (although, it transpired, not the war) was over, Moynihan stayed on as part of a small core team charged with closing down the Vote Leave operation, preparing reports for the auditors and the Electoral Commission. None in the group imagined that as one set of challenges had ended, a new level of travails was about to begin.

First, the Treasury clarified that anyone who had donated from their capital rather than income would have their contribution taxed. This came as a shock to donors, who had assumed (based on the precedent of political party funding and that no donors in the Scottish independence referendum had received tax bills) that their donations were tax-exempt. 

Since “Stronger In” had been far more dependent upon corporate donations, fewer of its backers were targeted by this surprise interpretation of the rules. By contrast, Leave’s funders were disproportionately hit, having mostly donated in a personal capacity. Many, including Moynihan, were in no doubt that the decision was intended to scare them off further involvement when the People’s Vote campaign succeeded in forcing a second referendum.

Leave donors were now to be subjected to waves of invasive investigations, requiring them to spend considerable months and sums collecting and supplying the evidence for years of accounts. The investigations failed to discover mass maleficence but succeeded in giving the impression that funding such campaigns in future would have repercussions for those who dared to do so with their own money. The process was the punishment.

In 2016, the Vote Leave campaign had approached and received what it understood to be assurances from the Electoral Commission that it could legally donate to a third party so long as it did so within the prescribed limits. The group it duly assisted was BeLeave, a youth-focused campaign organisation set up by a student, Darren Grimes. 

Following pressure from the Remain activist, Jolyon Maughan QC, the Electoral Commission launched investigations against both Grimes and Vote Leave. The Commission’s report found them guilty of collusion, a verdict it pronounced after interviewing the accusers but not the accused. Moynihan had to return to Vote Leave’s battle-weary donors in search of a further £1 million to fight the appeal. 

The risks of losing were considerable, especially since the Electoral Commission had hired the best legal team that limitless taxpayers’ money could buy. Facing considerable losses himself, Moynihan was persuaded to accept Vote Leave’s fine. Grimes however fought on, and won, having crowd-funded his case (to which Moynihan contributed). 

The toll that these and other investigations took on those involved was grievous. Moynihan had been president of the Royal Albert Hall since 2015. It was an institution to which he was devoted and whose constitution — which helped ensure it remained financially self-supporting unlike other major national cultural institutions — was under constant attack by the Charity Commission. There are only so many quangos that any man can fend off at one time, and the war on two fronts against the Electoral Commission over Brexit and the Charity Commission over the trustee structure of the Royal Albert Hall ultimately proved too much, with Moynihan feeling bound to stand down as the venue’s president.

Jon Moynihan and the donors he encouraged backed a cause against which the odds had been stacked and — with the bulk of the corporate and political establishment pro-Remain — for which no personal benefit could foreseeably accrue. 

Their only reward has been to find themselves ground down by the full force of lawfare. Until December’s general election provided the parliamentary means to get Brexit done, the prospect of having to go through the experience all over again in a second referendum hung over them like a Reformation rack, turning slowly but purposefully towards pinpointing where belief has its breaking point.

The prospect of that particular torture has now receded. Brexit’s “insider-outsiders” can focus, and fret, about what comes next. “There is a side of Jon Moynihan that likes to be a rebel,” thinks fellow Vote Leave backer and entrepreneur Luke Johnson. “He doesn’t see himself as a conformist.”

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