The man who could play the deciding role in The Telegraph’s fate

Tory MPs are pressing the Deputy Prime Minister to intervene in Abu Dhabi’s takeover of this newspaper

Dowden oversees the National Security and Investment Act, which allows the Government block acquisitions of assets that are vital to the UK’s national security
Dowden oversees the National Security and Investment Act, which allows the Government to block acquisitions of assets that are vital to the UK’s national security Credit: Heathcliff O'Malley

As Tory concerns mount over a looming Abu Dhabi-backed takeover of The Telegraph, attention is turning to Oliver Dowden.

While Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer has official responsibility for overseeing the sale, MPs are now pressing Mr Dowden to intervene under his national security mandate.

A close ally of Rishi Sunak, Mr Dowden has oversight of national security matters in Cabinet as part of his roles as Deputy Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Secretary of State in the Cabinet Office.

He is also charged with overseeing the National Security and Investment Act (NSIA), which allows the Government to impose conditions on or even block acquisitions of assets that are vital to the UK’s national security.

The sweeping laws came into force last year amid concerns the UK’s approach to foreign takeovers was too lax and allowing Chinese investors to sweep up prominent British companies with little scrutiny.

Now, though, it is the UAE in focus as it draws ever closer to funding an audacious swoop on The Telegraph.

RedBird IMI is in-line to take control of this newspaper through a deal with former owners the Barclay family that would allow them to repay debts owed to Lloyds Bank, ending an auction process for The Telegraph.

RedBird IMI is a joint venture between the US private equity firm RedBird Capital and International Media Investments (IMI), a vehicle controlled by UAE deputy prime minister Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan.

Jeff Zucker, the former CNN chief who heads RedBird IMI, has insisted that the UAE will be a passive partner in the investment and vowed to resign if the Gulf state seeks to interfere with The Telegraph’s editorial independence.

Regardless, the UAE has come under scrutiny for its authoritarian rule, questionable stance on human rights and track record of press censorship.

More than a dozen Tory MPs have written to Mr Dowden urging him to intervene under the terms of the NSIA, warning of a “very real potential national security threat” if the deal goes ahead.

The MPs also drew attention to the UAE’s increasingly close ties with China, which they warned made the planned takeover “even more troubling”.

Calls for Mr Dowden’s involvement come despite the fact that Ms Frazer has already said she is “minded” to issue a so-called Public Interest Intervention Notice (PIIN). 

This would trigger regulatory reviews into the deal’s impact on issues including accurate news and free expression, as well as plurality in views and ownership. 

It could ultimately lead to legally binding restrictions being placed on the deal, or even the takeover being blocked altogether. 

Ms Frazer, a former barrister who took up her first Cabinet position in February, has hired external lawyers as she considers potential action. She could issue a PIIN by the end of the week. 

Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer is expected to issue a Public Interest Intervention Notice by the end of the week Credit: Leon Neal/Getty Images Europe

Even still, it is Mr Dowden who could play the decisive role. 

An unashamed patriot, as culture secretary Mr Dowden issued guidance stating that the union flag should be flown over government buildings every day.

His views on press freedom are clear-cut. Writing in The Times in 2020, Mr Dowden said the press was the “cornerstone of a free, fair and open society”. In a speech the following year, he added that there were two vital elements to a healthy democracy: a free and diverse media, and the right to dissent.

Many of his colleagues, including former Tory Party leader Lord Hague, have argued that the UAE is not aligned with these values.

Seventeen deals have so far been blocked under the NSIA, including a retrospective order for Chinese-owned tech giant Nexperia to sell Newport Wafer Fab, the UK’s biggest chip plant.

Scrutiny of The Telegraph takeover comes as Mr Dowden considers watering down the national security laws amid a slump in dealmaking and complaints from China.

Announcing a review of the NSIA earlier this month, Mr Dowden said he wanted to pursue a “small garden, high fence” approach that would protect Britain from a small number of harmful deals while allowing the vast majority to go through.

“I want this system to be as pro-business and pro-investment as possible,” he added.

This more laissez-faire approach also comes as the Government looks to court investment from the Middle East.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak this week welcomed the UAE and other Gulf states to the Global Investment Summit, a high-profile event at Hampton Court Palace aimed at drumming up money from overseas.

Lord Johnson, the investment minister, claimed concerns about the takeover of The Telegraph were “sentimental” and branded the UAE a “great ally and partner”.

Parties involved in the RedBird IMI deal were understood to be giving notice to Ms Frazer on Wednesday that the Lloyds-Barclays deal was ready to complete as soon as Friday, meaning the UAE-backed fund could have control of The Telegraph imminently.

As the deadline looms, Mr Dowden will be forced to weigh up concerns about editorial freedom against an increasingly dovish approach to oil-rich Gulf nations. Ultimately, the future of a prized national asset could be in his hands.