Work carried out by the Conservative candidate for Harpenden and Berkhamsted on behalf of Vladimir Putin's government "went down in his favour" during the party selection process, the Herts Advertiser has been told.

Last week, Politico revealed that a public relations company co-founded by candidate Nigel Gardner - who was selected earlier this month - worked for the Russian government and state-owned energy corporation Gazprom in the early 2000s.

Mr Gardner also co-founded and chaired a second company that worked for Huawei, the Chinese technology firm that was banned from the UK's 5G networks in 2020.

Now, Ian Reay, chair of the Conservative selection committee for Harpenden and Berkhamsted, has told the Herts Advertiser that the committee had been made aware of the lobbying work during the selection process, and that it "went down in [Mr Gardner's] favour" as they "thought that it would be very good international experience".

Mr Gardner himself told the Herts Advertiser that he does not regret the decision to conduct public relations work for the Kremlin from 2006, pointing to the more positive Russia-West relationship that existed at that time.

Mr Reay, a former county councillor for Berkhamsted, said that Mr Gardner is "very hawkish on Russia and China now, and because of his experience when everybody was in favour of working with them, he knows a lot about these countries."

He confirmed that he retains "absolute" confidence in Mr Gardner as the Conservative candidate for the next general election.

It is understood that the topic of UK relations with Russia and China was discussed during the hustings for party members in Harpenden and Berkhamsted, but that Mr Gardner's lobbying work was not mentioned during that part of the selection process.

Mr Gardner co-founded GPlus - a European public relations company - in 2000, and sold his majority stake to American media giant Omnicom in January 2006. He continued to work for the company in a business strategy role until December 2009.

It was in April 2006 that GPlus and its sister company, Ketchum, signed a deal with the Russian government to advise them on a communications strategy for Western media.

Herts Advertiser: Nigel Gardner after his selection as the Conservative candidate for Harpenden and Berkhamsted.Nigel Gardner after his selection as the Conservative candidate for Harpenden and Berkhamsted. (Image: Nigel Gardner)

The work was related to Russia's presidency of the G8, which it had joined in 1997. At the time, the Financial Times reported that the decision to hire a European public relations firm was personally signed off by President Putin.

GPlus and Ketchum then added work for Gazprom to their portfolio in 2007, which Mr Gardner says was "about the regulation of the European energy market". Gazprom is an energy firm, owned by the Russian state, that has been described as a Kremlin "weapon" in the ongoing war in Ukraine.

GPlus's work for the Kremlin and for Gazprom remained ongoing when Mr Gardner left the company in late 2009.

While relations between Russia and the West in 2006 were friendlier than they would later become, signs of growing scepticism towards the country were already evident.

By the time GPlus signed their contract in spring 2006, Russia's G8 presidency had got off to a rocky start - they had cut off gas supplies to Ukraine. John McCain, then a US senator and preparing for a run at the presidency, called for G8 countries to boycott the flagship St Petersburg summit due to Russia's actions.

Then, in November 2006, Alexander Litvinenko, a former spy for Russia who fled to Britain and became a stringent critic of the Kremlin, was murdered in London. A later public inquiry concluded that his assassination was probably approved by Putin.

And in 2008, Russia was involved in a war with Georgia that led to its continuing occupation of South Ossetia and Obkhazia - deemed an illegal occupation by the UK government as it breaks a ceasefire agreement.

However, Russia was not suspended from the G8 until 2014, after it illegally annexed the Crimea in Ukraine.

GPlus has faced criticism for working on behalf of the Kremlin, including from the Corporate Europe Observatory in a 2015 report on the "whitewashing" of "brutal regimes" by European public relations companies.

However, according to Politico, Mr Gardner "did not recall negative press about the original decision" to work for the Kremlin.

Separate to his work with GPlus, Mr Gardner co-founded Flint Global, another public affairs company, in 2015. He stood down as chairman in December 2021, but remains a non-executive director.

Flint Global worked for Huawei during Mr Gardner's time as chairman, including after the British government had decided to ban Huawei's involvement in UK 5G networks due to security risks.

Speaking to the Herts Advertiser, Mr Gardner said that companies today should "absolutely not" work on behalf of Russia, China, or Chinese-owned companies.

He describes himself as "very hawkish" now on both Russia and China, and stresses the different geopolitical context of 2006.

He says that he is "completely satisfied" with the decision at the time to take on the work for the Russian government, adding: "I don't regret it at all ... I think it was completely acceptable to have taken that work at that time."

"Everybody thought Russia was changing, and for me as an individual, I'd seen glasnost [transparency] and perestroika [restructuring], I'd seen the changes in central and eastern Europe as a journalist [for Channel 4], we thought Russia was on the way to becoming a very, very different kind of country.

"When we took the contract on ...Russia was regarded as becoming a good international citizen, that's why it was admitted to the G8.

"[It was] being accepted into the whole panoply of global financial institutions, with trade deals and so on". At the time, Russia was negotiating its entry into the World Trade Organisation, which it joined in 2012.

Mr Gardner says that GPlus's work was "entirely in line" with the stance of the British and American governments at the time: "We weren't doing anything that wasn't completely mainstream."

"We actually thought we were doing quite a good thing, we were helping them understand how to deal with the scrutiny of the Western media ... we were putting senior Russian officials in front of Western journalists for the first time in their lives."

He also says that he thinks GPlus's continuing work for Russia after 2006 was "massively scaled back", and that it had become "tiny" by the time he left the company.

On Flint Global's work for Huawei, Mr Gardner - who was the EU's spokesman for EU-China relations between 1997 and 1999 - says that they won the contract, relating to telecoms regulation, "very shortly" before the government's position changed in July 2020.

"At that stage, we helped Huawei disengage from it. It was all very technical work.

“At the time we took the work, we had an ethics board which considered it, we considered it at the board level … we were happy it was an appropriate thing to do.”

Asked when he came to the view that companies should "absolutely not" work for Chinese companies today, he cites concerns about China's crackdown on dissidents in Hong Kong, its attitude towards human rights, and its increasingly aggressive trade policy.

When it is put to him that these trends were already apparent by 2021, while Mr Gardner was chairman of Flint and, he says, the company was still working for Huawei, he responds that the work carried out in that year was "legacy work" and "purely ... exit work".

“I remember being in meetings where I asked ‘what is this legacy work, why are we still working for them?'. But I don’t want to pass responsibility to anybody else because I was part of these decisions.”

He continues: "At the stage when your national government says it doesn't trust a foreign-owned company to be involved in important national infrastructure, everyone has a responsibility and an obligation to cease dealing with that company, which is what we did."

"Would I go near working for a company like Huawei today? No.

"But at the stage we did this, the British government was welcoming Huawei into the system, into the country - we were looking for Chinese investment."

Warnings about Huawei had been raised prior to the government's final decision, however.

In May 2019, Sir Richard Dearlove - a former head of MI6 - said that Huawei's 5G involvement was "a potential security risk", and, in December 2019, then prime minister Boris Johnson hinted that he was considering ending Huawei's involvement following pressure from the US government.

Responding to this story, Victoria Collins, the Liberal Democrat candidate for Harpenden and Berkhamsted, said: "The people of Harpenden, Berkhamsted, Tring and our villages need a community champion who will put residents and their issues first, not anyone or anything else.

"This raises serious questions and highlights just how out of touch the Conservatives are from the needs of local people.

"Liberal Democrats are campaigning to give our community a proper voice in Westminster."