Uber was riding high in London in 2014. Two years after launching, the US private hire app had eaten into the business of black taxis and minicabs without huge political backlash.
But that spring, one of Uber’s main political fixers got in touch with its California HQ with some bad news about Boris Johnson, the London mayor.
“Saw Boris. The fix is in against us.” The email came from Jim Messina, an ex-aide to Barack Obama whose clients included both Uber and the UK Conservative party.
Johnson was refusing to meet Uber, and was sympathetic to the complaints of rivals that it was operating on the edges of the law. A second consultant for Uber would later report that Johnson had said of its controversial chief executive that it “would be less damaging politically to be photographed with the leader of Isis than with Travis Kalanick”.
In the years that followed Uber undertook a remorseless lobbying campaign to stop Johnson bringing in tougher regulation.
The scale of the effort – targeting George Osborne, David Cameron and others – has only been made public through the Uber files, a leak to the Guardian revealing how the company gained backdoor access to politicians globally.
The plan to try to influence the mayor was spelled out in a strategy dated 2014: “The need is for a more positive image of Uber to be conveyed to Boris, by people that he trusts and respects.” The targets were Tory assembly members, No 10 aides and the regulator, Transport for London (TfL), chaired by Johnson.
In pursuit of that aim, it hired superstar lobbyists, including Rachel Whetstone, a close friend of Cameron and Osborne, which opened doors.
One senior in-house lobbyist recalled thinking they had “the highest level of access possible since one of our senior executives was very close to Cameron and Osborne.
“I don’t know if she was pulling strings, but she was talking and texting her friends, for sure, because another member of the Conservatives was a problem for us, and his name was Boris Johnson. He was mayor of London and he was basically on the side of the black taxis, that’s no secret. And he controlled TfL so we needed central government, in this case Dave and George, to lean on Boris.”
Whetstone does not deny having occasional appropriate conversations with politicians, but her lawyers say “she did not routinely ‘lobby’ … on behalf of Uber in private”.
Uber’s strategy appeared to work. After a campaign by the company’s friends in government, Johnson would reveal in an October 2015 column for the Telegraph that he had been “deluged” by complaints from fellow Conservatives about his proposals.
By January 2016, Johnson’s efforts to regulate Uber much more strictly would ultimately fail.
‘Crosby’s like us: he doesn’t lose’
Messina, the former Obama aide who warned of Johnson’s hostility, advised the company to hire the mayor’s former strategist Lynton Crosby.
“Lynton Crosby ran both of Boris’s campaigns and is now Cameron’s campaign manager … His firm lobbies and he LOVES Uber. He can fix with Boris quietly. I say we throw him in the water for us. He’s controversial but he’s like us: he doesn’t lose,” Messina said in an email chain titled “Problem in London”, sent to an Uber executive in February 2014.
Crosby met Uber and his firm CT Group pitched to provide advice and polling, but the leaked papers suggest Uber was not sure it could trust someone so close to the mayor.
Asked about his work for the Tories and Uber, Messina’s spokesperson said he provided “global political counsel” and his work for Uber “involved helping them understand the political landscape in certain European countries where the company was seeking to grow its business”. CT Group said: “Uber did not engage CT Partners. To be clear, CT complies fully with requirements under the Lobbying Act regarding the disclosure of clients.”A deal was never done. But with concern mounting about the London mayor, Uber began to cast around for political help.
Dinner in Silicon Valley
London cab drivers brought the capital to a standstill in summer 2014 in protest against lax regulation of Uber, accusing it of operating outside the law.
Around that time, Whetstone, then the head of public affairs at Google, which was one of Uber’s major investors, sent Kalanick a note about how to win round the British political establishment.
Whetstone – a friend of Cameron and the wife of his former strategist Steve Hilton – had invited Kalanick to a private dinner in Silicon Valley, apparently at the suggestion of Osborne, then chancellor of the exchequer, who was billed as the star guest.
A US Uber aide told Kalanick in an email in August 2014: “We were going to get you in front of Osborne when you’re in London, but this is a much more private affair, no hanger-on officials or staffers.” Was this an official meeting? The guidelines are vague, but it wasn’t declared by the Treasury.
According to the documents, Whetstone believed Uber’s relationship with Osborne would be fruitful. She wrote to Kalanick in September 2014: “As you know George, that is most of the problem solved from the government side.”
On Johnson, she made some suggestions: “George will probably know best who has his ear but he is fairly uncontrollable … Eddie Lister runs his office (good guy). Boris will care a lot about the Evening Standard so worth seeing the editor there.”
Within the year, Kalanick had poached Whetstone for Uber. She would become head of communications and policy and help take Uber’s lobbying to the next level.
‘Who is Matt Hancock?’
Osborne agreed to see Kalanick again in January 2015 in Downing Street. An account by Uber executives characterised the chancellor as “very welcoming towards Uber”, asking: “How do I get more of it?”
They claimed he was “open to helping with any barriers that we may encounter”, while stressing it was best to discuss London regulation with Johnson.
Uber regarded Matt Hancock, then a business minister, who was close to Osborne, as another ally. One UK Uber PR executive described him as a “good friend to us” in an email.
Lottie Dexter, a Hancock aide who later became Uber’s PR chief, reportedly told one of the company’s executives in April 2015: “Matt Hancock loves Uber and wants to meet soon.” She did not provide a comment when contacted by the Guardian.
One of Uber’s lobbying firms, Westbourne, also had a relationship with Hancock. The company’s list of lobbying targets from 2014 notes: “Westbourne spoke with Matt Hancock about Uber over dinner.”
This was not declared, but his spokesperson said the dinner was political and, therefore, not declarable.
Westbourne was owned by James Bethell, a Tory hereditary peer who later became a health minister under Hancock. Asked about his work for Uber, Lord Bethell said: “I hope we never turn our backs on innovative companies seeking to make their case to government and the media.”
Despite Hancock being seen as a friend, Uber appeared sensitive about which government ministers Kalanick should see.
One Uber executive in Europe asked in an email: “Who is Matt Hancock and why are we offering for Travis to meet him?” In December 2014, Downing Street suggested to Uber that Hancock could meet Kalanick in No 10. The internal reply from the Uber aide organising Kalanick’s schedule came back: “Matt Hancock is definitely bonkers if he thinks we would send TK to meet with him.”
It was prime ministers, chancellors, or nothing.
The Sexy Fish party
Uber’s problems got worse throughout 2015. First, TfL applied for a legal ruling on whether Uber’s app to calculate fares counted as a taximeter – which only black cabs were allowed to use.
Then, in June, Johnson hit out at the “brash attitudes of these gigantic American internet companies and the way they think they can come over and disrupt the market”.
Within weeks, TfL announced a consultation on capping minicab driver numbers and asking customers to wait five minutes between booking and getting in the vehicle.
Uber reacted by going into lobbying overdrive. Whetstone and David Plouffe, another former Obama adviser working for Uber, came to London that winter to target people associated with City Hall and Westminster, including Zac Goldsmith, the Tory candidate hoping to replace Johnson.
Plouffe also managed – finally – to see a member of Johnson’s team: Isabel Dedring, the deputy mayor for transport. Uber executives reported back that she suggested there was “no way” some of the measures that Uber found “bonkers”, including the five-minute wait time, would go forward, according to their account of the meeting in December 2015.
According to Dedring, Plouffe requested the meeting to “discuss global thought leadership” and mobility services. Contradicting the company’s account, she said she insisted to Uber the meeting was “not about the changes that the mayor and TfL were proposing to modernise the regulation of private hire services”.
Other ministers targeted included the then transport secretary, Patrick McLoughlin, and Sajid Javid, then the business secretary. Javid chided the company over tax but they thought he was a “user and clearly a supporter”, according to emailed accounts between UK executives. Javid did not comment on the meeting.
A No 10 digital adviser, Daniel Korski, was also making the case in favour of Uber, writing to TfL accusing them of attempting “insane and luddite things” in relation to regulation of cabs, according to correspondence previously released under freedom of information laws.
In December 2015, a meeting took place between Johnson and government big-hitters, including Korski, Javid and McLoughlin. An official note of the meeting records only that “different views were exchanged”.
Also in December, an in-house Uber lobbyist emailed colleagues to report that he had “grabbed 10 minutes” with Korski at a No 10 event. He summarised his view of the official’s position as: “We’ll get this sorted next year. We’ll get everyone together and figure things out on the consultation, congestion and the pedicabs.”
Korski says he met company executives to “hear their perspectives on things including regulation”, but says he did not tell or promise “anyone at Uber anything”.
A month later Korski would visit Uber HQ in California – along with making trips to other tech firms – and then attend a dinner organised by a Google executive, where Whetstone was present.
He said the TfL consultation was not discussed and he had not met Whetstone before or since. “I did not take orders from Uber, lobby on behalf of any one company including Uber, [give] the company any special insight into non-disclosed policy deliberation nor did I or anyone I worked with seek to give Uber a special favour,” he said.
Uber, meanwhile, was trying to secure another meeting with Osborne. In an email to colleagues in December 2015, Whetstone said: “I am having dinner with him on Monday so will mention it then.”
This was a Christmas party hosted by Whetstone at the Sexy Fish restaurant in Mayfair, a celebrity haunt. Cameron and Osborne were both there. So were senior lobbyists from Portland and Global Counsel who were working for Uber. While the party received a lot of media attention, it was never declared by No 10 or the Treasury.
When the TfL consultation outcome was published on 20 January 2016 it was seen as a clear win for Uber. Johnson had dropped his most controversial proposals for waiting times after booking, a ban on a map of available cars and forcing firms to offer pre-booking. The mayor also acknowledged he did not have the support from the government to bring in a cap on driver numbers.
That morning, Johnson was pressed in his assembly questions about whether there had been “enormous lobbying by the government”. Johnson replied: “No, I do not deny that.”
When asked by the Guardian about whether No 10 and Osborne pushed him to water down the outcome, a spokesperson for Johnson said: “We do not believe that Boris Johnson ever met Uber whilst mayor of London.”
A City Hall source from the time acknowledges Johnson and his allies came under “sometimes aggressive lobbying from senior individuals in government” but says they withstood the pressure and the most damaging proposals for Uber were dropped because they were unworkable.
However, a few days later, Kalanick met Osborne in Davos. Uber reported internally: “Very good meeting. George Osborne is a strong advocate. He liked to believe that he’s responsible for the positive TfL consultation outcome.”
Osborne was soon out of office. But his association with Uber was not quite over. As editor of the Evening Standard, his newspaper’s often pro-Uber stance raised eyebrows. At the time, he had a £650,000-a-year job with BlackRock, an investment firm – which had an approximately £500m stake in Uber.
A spokesperson for Osborne said the premise of the Uber files investigation was wrong. “It was the explicit and publicly announced policy of the coalition government to meet with global tech businesses, persuade them to invest in Britain … All business meetings where policy affecting individual companies [was discussed] were properly declared – something no previous administration did,” the spokesperson said.
Whetstone said she joined Uber in 2015 because she loved the service, and believed in the promise of flexible work for drivers. “I consistently pushed back on Uber’s more aggressive business practices – which were established well before my arrival – with some success but resigned after 18 months due to significant, ongoing concerns about the company’s culture,” she said.
Her lawyers said their client had “never sought to exploit or take improper advantage of personal relationships with UK politicians and/or former government ministers”.
They said the dinner with Osborne in California was to discuss innovation with Silicon Valley leaders and the Sexy Fish dinner in London was not a business event.
They added: “The abandonment of proposals relating to the TfL private-hire vehicle consultation was the result of a very public campaign which received support from hundreds of thousands of Londoners. To suggest that this had anything to do with lobbying activities or other inappropriate behaviour by our client would be false.”
As for Uber, the company said it was “nonsense” that any of its lobbying was done secretly, saying it had “long-championed rules and regulations that reflect changing technology and correspond with the interests of our customers and those earning on our platform” and stated its positions publicly.
But it conceded its initial approach from that time was “at times, too brash” while it was trying to “work with” the UK government to improve Victorian-era taxi regulation. A company spokesperson said it had put in place new governance of its advocacy and lobbying. “We have admitted many mistakes and missteps,” it said.
A spokesperson for Kalanick said that “in an industry where competition had been historically outlawed”, a “change of the status quo” had been required. “As a natural and foreseeable result, entrenched industry interests all over the world fought to prevent the much-needed development of the transportation industry.”