A Tory government at the heart of yet another lobbying scandal. Last month’s led to the resignation of Liam Fox. This one leads to David Cameron himself.
By Tamasin Cave of the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency
This is reminiscent of the old Tory days of sleaze. A Conservative government at the heart of yet another lobbying scandal. Last month’s led to the resignation of the defence secretary. This one leads to the prime minister himself.
He is caught on camera boasting of his contacts:
“I was in the Conservative research department with David Cameron and George Osborne… I was in the Shadow Cabinet under two or three leaders, again with David Cameron and George Osborne…
“I’ve been working with people like Steve Hilton, David Cameron, George Osborne, for 20 years-plus. Edward Llewellyn, who’s the prime minister’s chief of staff, was my deputy in Central Office for a long time.
“Steve Hilton was my deputy in a different capacity. I know all these people. There is not a problem in getting the messages through to them.”
In a speech before last year’s election, David Cameron attacked “secret corporate lobbying”.
“We all know how it works. The lunches, the hospitality, the quiet word in your ear… It arouses people’s worst fears and suspicions about how our political system works… A cosy club at the top making decisions in their own interest.”
We all know how it works now.
In government, Cameron’s hostility to lobbyists appears to have evaporated, along with his commitment to “shine the light of transparency on lobbying in our country”.
The list below shows the extent to which David Cameron’s coalition is mired in it:
• In recent months we have learnt it is “completely commonplace” for Whitehall departments to contact corporate lobbyists about government business using text messages as a way to avoid disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.
• We’ve seen the “systematic use of private e-mails” (£) by education secretary Michael Gove for the same reason.
• Local government secretary, Eric Pickles, kept hidden a dinner with lobbyists (the same firm, Bell Pottinger, incidentally) and businesses with an interest in his department, because he claims to have attended in a ‘private’ and not a ‘ministerial’ capacity.
• A week before the publication of the government’s radical changes to the planning system, planning minister Bob Neill enjoyed an informal drink on the lawns of Westminster Abbey with Tesco’s chief lobbyist Lucy Neville-Rolf, as Left Foot Forward revealed.
• Last month, the partner of energy secretary Chris Huhne was caught hawking her services (£) to lobbying firms on the strength of her “excellent contacts… from Cabinet members to more junior ministers”.
• The health secretary Andrew Lansley’s wife runs a lobbying firm that boasts clients in the drug and food business, and advices on establishing “positive relationships with decision-makers”.
Nick Clegg, who is ultimately responsible for the lobbying register’s introduction as head of the Cabinet Office, will not take a position on the policy because his wife is a lobbyist.
We were reminded last month of the prime minister’s relationship with his neighbour and close ally Lord Chadlington, thanks to a deal they had struck over a plot of land and a garage. Like Lord Bell, Lord Chadlington owns and runs a vast communications group that includes three lobbying firms, whose clients include HSBC, Tesco and the City of London Corporation.
Employees include lobbyists George Bridges, who is Cameron’s former campaign director and a good friend of the chancellor George Osborne; and Malcolm Morton, an ex-adviser to the Cabinet Office minister in charge of regulating lobbyists, Mark Harper.
“I believe that it is increasingly clear that lobbying in this country is getting out of control,” said David Cameron in opposition. The situation under his leadership is undoubtedly worse.
And yet, there is no sign of the only measure capable of revealing such behind-the-scenes lobbying – a statutory register of lobbyists, as I outlined on these pages in March last year. It’s time his government ignored the private protests of the influence industry – whether Conservative peers, former colleagues, friends, neighbours, or wives – and listened to public demands for transparency.
The longer he delays the greater the smell.
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• Safe in their hands? Tory peers, private health and the threat to our NHS – Shamik Das, November 2nd 2011
• Exposed: The lobbyist who said “the public has no right to know who our clients are” – Tamasin Cave, October 18th 2011
• Fox’s sliminess shows how much we need lobbying regulation – Tamasin Cave, October 10th 2011
• Crony capitalism alive and well under the Conservatives – Tamasin Cave, April 27th 2011
• Why we need for a compulsory register of lobbyists – Tamasin Cave, March 14th 2010