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Boris Johnson’s government worked for months to encourage the Premier League to approve the controversial Saudi Arabia-backed takeover of Newcastle United, a Guardian investigation can reveal.
The extensive efforts to facilitate the deal, led by Johnson’s minister for investment, Lord Gerry Grimstone, were made despite the government, and Johnson, repeatedly saying publicly that they had no involvement in the takeover talks.
Grimstone became involved in discussions with the then Premier League chairman Gary Hoffman, and Saudi representatives, apparently up to the office of the crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, to try to help secure a takeover the government considered to be in the UK’s strategic and economic interests. Grimstone’s work appears to have extended as far as trying to broker a solution to the Saudi piracy of Premier League and other sports TV rights bought by the Qatari broadcaster BeIN, which was seen as a barrier to the takeover being approved.
Grimstone, a former Barclays chairman, was made a life peer in March 2020 by Johnson then appointed minister at the Office for Investment. Its stated role is to “use the authority of Number 10 Downing Street to work across government to break down barriers to landing top-tier investments”.
Attracting investment from the Gulf is a key element of Grimstone’s ministerial role, and he is very well-connected in Saudi Arabia, having previously led for Prince Mohammed a group providing advice on the kingdom’s corporate policy and privatisation.
After the takeover stalled for almost 18 months, the Premier League finally approved it in October 2021, with the Saudi sovereign Public Investment Fund (PIF), chaired by Prince Mohammed, buying an 80% stake in Newcastle. After the deal was completed, Hoffman told a meeting of the 20 Premier League clubs that the government had put pressure on the league to approve the takeover.
He said, however, that the league had not been influenced by the government pressure, which is understood to have been concentrated from June 2020, when the takeover stalled, to September 2020 when the then Newcastle owner, Mike Ashley, took legal action against the league. Hoffman is said throughout to have declared to the Premier League board all contact from government figures, principally Grimstone, and later Eddie Lister, Johnson’s then chief strategic adviser.
The details cast doubt on the government’s persistent statements that they did not become involved in the process. Johnson himself stated in a parliamentary answer to the Newcastle Central MP, Chi Onwurah, in April 2021: “The government was not involved at any point in the takeover talks on the sale of Newcastle.”
Responding to the Guardian’s questions about Grimstone’s discussions, Downing Street again referred to that answer, and said the Newcastle deal was “a commercial matter for the Premier League and it was entirely for them to assess under its owners’ and directors’ test”.
The Newcastle takeover by a Saudi Arabian fund was deeply controversial and vehemently opposed as “sportswashing” by Amnesty and other human rights groups concerned about repression under Prince Mohammed’s regime, notoriously including the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Most Premier League clubs are also said to have opposed it, principally to prevent another club being mega-funded by Gulf state wealth like Manchester City, who have been financed to become serial champions since their takeover by Sheikh Mansour of Abu Dhabi’s ruling family.
Although Johnson and his ministers have said they remained neutral, the government regards Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi and other Gulf states as firm allies and crucial sources of potential inward investment, increasingly important after Brexit. Johnson has also burnished a strong personal relationship with Prince Mohammed, described as a “bromance” in a recent article by Politico.
Grimstone is understood to have made contact with Hoffman after the proposed takeover stalled in June 2020. This followed the Premier League’s decision, based on legal advice, that the PIF’s 80% ownership of Newcastle would mean that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) would control the club. That meant the Saudi state itself would have to undertake the league’s “fit and proper persons” owners’ and directors’ test. This raised the prospect that the KSA would fail, and the takeover be blocked, principally because the state had been found to be responsible for pirating BeIN’s sports rights. The KSA refused to accept that, and in July 2020 the consortium announced the takeover was off.
Responding to questions about Grimstone’s involvement, a spokesperson at the Department for International Trade (DIT) confirmed that the minister did speak to Hoffman, “as part of the countless conversations he has in his ministerial role”, but said he had “never tried to influence Mr Hoffman and the Premier League to approve the Newcastle takeover”.
The Guardian then asked Grimstone and the DIT why it was part of his ministerial role to discuss the takeover, whether Grimstone was also discussing it with senior Saudi officials up to Prince Mohammed’s office, and seeking to help broker solutions to the piracy and other perceived problems. The spokesperson did not answer those questions directly, but said: “Part of the minister’s role in his capacity as investment minister is to, amongst other things, keep abreast of large investments potentially coming into the UK, hence his high-level engagement with relevant stakeholders.”
Asked to explain what the “high-level engagement” was, and who the “relevant stakeholders” were, Grimstone and the DIT did not respond.
Lister acknowledged that he also made contact with Hoffman, in September 2020, saying he believed the Premier League had left the Saudi-backed consortium in doubt: “This has always been a commercial matter for the Premier League, not the government,” he said. “My only view was that the Premier League should take a clear decision on the merits or demerits of the proposal.”
Asked to clarify why he believed there was uncertainty, given that the Premier League had communicated its decision in June 2020, Lister declined to expand.
Last year the Mail reported, based on leaked messages, that Lister had relayed to Johnson in September 2020 that the deal was “hopefully” going to be approved. The prime minister, who had reportedly received complaints from Prince Mohammed about the Premier League’s stance, responded: “Brilliant.”
However the Premier League did not approve the takeover then, and only did a year later after the PIF provided “legally binding assurances that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will not control Newcastle United”. Although some Premier League clubs were incensed this was accepted, sources close to the process have explained that the assurances did make a crucial difference to the legal advice, so that KSA was no longer considered a controlling party.
While Hoffman then told the clubs that the government had put pressure on the league to approve the deal, Richard Masters, the league’s chief executive, told them it had not, and said in a BBC interview: “There were conversations with government but there was no pressure applied.”
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The Premier League declined to comment on Grimstone’s involvement, saying board and club meeting discussions are confidential, but did not dispute any of the details. A source indicated that the apparent difference between Hoffman’s and Masters’ view was that Masters did not consider that the conversations with the government amounted to pressure, because the league was not influenced by them.
Hoffman declined to comment. He resigned as the Premier League chairman after the clubs’ adverse reaction to the deal being approved. The PIF and the Newcastle takeover consortium did not respond to questions about the discussions with the UK government.