A lobbying company run by the Conservatives’ top election strategist, Isaac Levido, is advising the owners of the Daily Mail on their bid to buy the Telegraph newspaper titles, prompting concerns over a potential conflict of interest.
Fleetwood Strategy, which was set up by Levido after running the Tories’ highly successful election campaign in 2019, is helping the Daily Mail & General Trust navigate a potential acquisition of the right-wing broadsheet, the Guardian has learned.
However, the involvement of the firm co-owned by Levido, a senior Conservative figure who is a regular visitor to Downing Street and has close contacts across the top of the party, has caused alarm among some MPs and government officials.
An auction to sell the titles, which include the Daily and Sunday Telegraph and the Spectator magazine, was paused last week after an Abu Dhabi-backed consortium pledged to repay more than £1bn in debts owed to Lloyds Banking Group by the Barclay family as it seeks to regain control of the media group.
Lucy Frazer, the culture secretary, has said she is minded to refer the takeover to Ofcom, the media regulator, over concerns about its implications for editorial independence at the newspaper and its related titles. A formal investigation could take months to resolve and keeps alive the prospect of another bidder taking over.
There is no suggestion that Levido has been directly lobbying ministers or civil servants on behalf of DMGT, with the contract being handled by a different part of his business. However, he would be expected to benefit financially from Fleetwood’s involvement in the process.
One senior Tory said: “On the one hand, Isaac is advising the government and is in and out of No 10 where all the big decisions are made. On the other, he stands to make money from the Mail group trying to buy the Telegraph. It doesn’t look great.”
A government official added that the involvement of Levido’s firm in the bidding process was “at the very least, unhelpful” when the sale of the Conservative-supporting Telegraph group was such a commercially and politically sensitive matter.
Levido’s involvement in a potential bid by DMGT emerged after senior Tories voiced concerns about the increasingly fraught battle for the publication’s ownership.
Tory peer Lord Charles Moore, a former editor of all three titles, argued that the media group should not be controlled by a foreign power, while former party leader Iain Duncan Smith suggested it would be a “detrimental step”.
The owner of the Daily Mail and Metro is one of several suitors interested in buying the titles, with the sale becoming a battle of the right for control of one of the UK’s most powerful media institutions.
The former chancellor Nadhim Zahawi is in line to become chair of the Telegraph group after brokering a deal between Middle Eastern investors and the Barclay family, months after they surrendered the debt-laden business to Lloyds Banking Group.
He confirmed that he has introduced the Barclays to Jeff Zucker, the former CNN boss who is leading the Abu Dhabi-backed RedBird IMI bid to take control of the newspaper group. Sources said that Zucker met executives at the Telegraph’s London headquarters on Tuesday.
A consortium led by Sir Paul Marshall, the hedge fund boss who is a shareholder in GB News, is also a potential bidder. It is being advised by Hanbury Strategy, a lobbying firm set up by ex-David Cameron adviser Ameet Gill and Vote Leave campaigner Paul Stephenson.
News Corp, which owns The Times, is understood to be interested in purchasing The Spectator, with Rupert Murdoch said to be a huge fan of the periodical.
However, the culture department’s efforts to investigate the Abu Dhabi-backed bid risk being steamrolled by the Foreign Office, which is eager to bolster Britain’s relations with the United Arab Emirates, sources told the Guardian.
Senior figures at the Foreign Office had already sought to “take the edge off” a letter from Frazer in which she laid out her intention to have the bid examined by Ofcom, sources claimed.
Frazer wrote last week to RedBird IMI, saying she was “minded” to have the bid examined closely through a public interest intervention notice (PIIN) because of concerns about its implications for editorial independence.
If she does decide to intervene by issuing a PIIN, the Competition and Markets Authority would also look at the change of ownership of the Telegraph to assess any potential competition concerns.
Fleetwood Strategy and DMGT declined to comment.