James Forsyth

The lobbyist’s web still threatens the reputation of MPs, parliament and politics

The lobbyist's web still threatens the reputation of MPs, parliament and politics
Text settings

Allegations that Jack Straw and Malcolm Rifkind were involved in the latest ‘cash for access’ scandal is a reminder of the threat that lobbying poses to both the reputation of parliament and politics. In 2011, as Liam Fox was caught up in the Adam Werritty scandal, The Spectator examined how the lobbying industry works and how it threatens to skew our democracy:

Old hands in Westminster are confident that they know what lies behind the Liam Fox-Adam Werritty relationship. With a knowing glint in their eye, they lean forward and whisper: ‘He’s a lobbyist.’ They’ve seen it all before, they say. It explains why Werritty thought it was worth spending tens of thousands of pounds just to be in the same city as the Defence Secretary. ‘We all know the drill with these people,’ one senior Tory explains. ‘Their job is to get as close to you as possible and if it is easier to bump into you in Dubai or Washington than London, that’s where they’ll do it.’

Lobbyists for special interests are a cancer on the body politic. They distort our democracy, skewing it in favour of those who can afford their services. Their job is to become friends with ministers, MPs, special advisers — anyone with access to power, and use that position to make the case for their clients.

Werritty says he is not a lobbyist. His own, very unusual business model involved a clique of rich men paying for him to attend conferences, hang out with the Defence Secretary and engage in networking. It remains unclear whether his patrons were subsidising him out of ideological zeal or in the hope of gaining privileged information. But it was not going to be long before this new kid on the block was caught up in the darker side of political lobbying.

Sure enough, in March this year a lobby­ing firm — Tetra Strategy — put Werritty in touch with one of its clients, Harvey Boulter. This controversial American tycoon was paying Tetra a considerable sum for ‘litigation PR assistance’ in relation to a lawsuit concerning a company that involved the Ministry of Defence. Werritty didn’t see the danger signs. Instead, he arranged a meeting between Boulter and Fox in Dubai with no officials present. The rest threatens to make Dr Fox’s Cabinet career history.

The location of this meeting tells us something important about the lobbyist’s web: it is a worldwide one. They are attracted to any event that the politically powerful attend. They also know that ministers are far more likely to let their guard down in foreign climes, away from the prying eyes of their constituents and the press.

The world of defence procurement, where governments are the clients and individual contracts often run into the tens of millions, is particularly thick with lobbyists’ traps — which is why the Ministry of Defence has such rigorous rules about meetings with potential suppliers. But Fox, as a favour to his best man, ignored these rules to meet Boulter. As a direct result, he found himself embroiled in a $30 million blackmail lawsuit which has, in turn, led to press scrutiny of his links with Werritty and the whole vexed question of what motivates people to fund a man whose principal asset is his friendship with a Cabinet minister.

Spending by the government of which Fox is a member now constitutes a staggering 50 per cent of economic output. In this barren economic landscape it is one of the few sources of business out there. There are £12 billion worth of NHS computer systems that can be ordered then abandoned, wind farms to be subsidised, and contracts to find work for the unemployed. The tiniest change in government policy can be worth millions to this company or that, giving firms a huge interest in finding ingenious ways to try and tilt things in their favour.

Long before he entered No. 10, David Cameron was acutely aware of the dangers of this kind of crony capitalism. In a speech he called lobbying ‘the next big scandal waiting to happen’. ‘We all know how it works,’ he said. ‘The lunches, the hospitality, the quiet word in your ear, the ex-ministers and ex-advisers for hire, helping big business find the right way to get its way.’ Just as Tony Blair wanted to end sleaze, Cameron wanted to make politics lobbyist-free. This was a noble ambition, but one that he soon found to be impossible to achieve. The culture of influence peddling was already too engrained.

Before the last election, Cameron wanted to set up a system in which every candidate disclosed every meeting they had. The idea was that, after the scandal of MPs’ expenses, such transparency would begin to restore trust in politics — to show the voters that no one had undue influence over the people seeking election as their representative. The scheme was also meant to make potential MPs think twice about getting too close to any one company, industry or individual.

But this scheme never saw the light of day. One Tory candidate, who worked for a PR-cum-lobbying firm, objected, saying that if they had to provide the details of who they met, it would be extremely embarrassing. Despite this being precisely the point, this criticism gave Cameron and those around him pause. He knew that a painfully large number of his most high-profile candidates were working for PR agencies or lobbying shops. The plan was ditched.

By global standards, Britain is not a corrupt country. Ministers, MPs and officials can’t just be bribed, and no one would be so crass as to try. Mohammed al-Fayed’s offer of cash for questions stands as an exception that proves the rule. It was a great scandal in Britain, but it would be seen as an everyday occurrence in all too many countries — including a few members of the European Union. Bribery may not be British. But in the mother of parliaments, the influence game works in more subtle ways.

The starting block for those who seek to guide power is access. Without it, you have no hope of getting your point across. Over the past decade, firms have developed elaborate ways of gaining ‘face-time’ with those who matter. One approach is to hire a minister’s friend, someone who can be relied on to find a way to meet their old chum. With the best friend on board — usually with a salary out of all proportion to his or her previous job — persuading the minister to do a quick ‘grip and grin’ with a client isn’t too hard. It all seems harmless enough, after all. Indeed, the joke seems to be on the people who’ve paid a considerable sum for the briefest of introductions.

A variation on this strategy is hiring a former employee. Again, those who’ve worked for someone should be able to, in the parlance of the trade, ‘deliver them’, persuade them to give a few remarks at the beginning of a drinks reception or the like. This doesn’t put the minister out too much and assures the client that their money is getting them in with the decision-makers. Whether such a stunt actually influences policy does not matter much to the lobbyist; their aim is simply to justify their fees by giving the impression of opening doors.

Former advisers offer a particular advantage: they know who really makes policy. One of the things you pay them for is the ability to tell you just who to pursue and how. It may well be that a company’s persuasive firepower is best directed at some little-known figure who isn’t even an MP. It is worth remembering that when Derek Draper listed the 17 people who mattered in the New Labour government, only six of them were parliamentarians.

Then there is party conference. These events have now been taken over almost entirely by lobbyists. There is simply no better opportunity in the calendar to have a quiet word in a minister’s ear. Depressingly, the Conservatives now raise money by playing the lobbyists’ game. There is an unofficial cash-for-access deal. Those who fork out for a stand at the party conference are pretty much guaranteed a regular stream of well-placed visitors. At a meeting for Tory special advisers before conference, it was emphasised to them that their bosses should make sure they tour the stands at least once. That way, the exhibitors would feel they were getting value for money.

There are more subtle ways of gaining access at party conference. A quiet word in one of those badly-lit conference parties is a particular favourite. Indeed, with no name-tags on at these events, MPs can often be deep in conversation with someone before they realise their agenda. Or they bump into someone they remember as a party adviser or a journalist, not knowing that they have gone over to the dark side.

In Manchester last week, one Tory MP complained to me that he couldn’t even go to the loo without being lobbied. Another fretted about the fact that whenever someone handed you a drink in the crowded bar you had no idea what their game was: were they just helping you cut the queue or did they expect you to listen to their spiel about a client’s social worth? One male MP joked that he kept thinking that he had become irresistible to tall, well-presented blondes — only for them to dash his hopes by starting to tell him about how the government needed to do something about feed-in tariffs.

For those who prefer the more formal route, there is always the option of sponsoring one of those think-tank events with remarkably dull titles. For about £8,000 — some organisations will go as low as £6,000, others demand as much as £10,000 — you get to frame the debate and have your chief executive on the same panel as a minister. Often such discussions are arranged by lobbyists for lobbyists. When the debate is thrown open to the floor, questions tend to come from the representatives of companies, national charities or other organisations seeking to bend government policy.

But above all, the companies in the influence trade make themselves useful. Are you a candidate who has quit your job to fight your seat? Then they’ll offer you a rather well-paid part-time job that you can fit around your campaigning. Once they’ve done this for you, you’ll be in their debt. Even after you’ve been elected and no longer work for them, you’ll feel obliged to turn up at their party conference dinners and glad-hand their clients.

But it is not just politicians who are lobbied. The people who shape most of the decisions in government are also targets. The reason firms were so keen to hire ex-Labour ministers after the last election was that they knew who the key civil servants were for each policy in their old departments.

All of this is, in many ways, a massive ruse at the expense of the lobbyists’ clients. They end up picking up the tab for drinks and dinner for people who just pretend to listen to them.

But the danger is, as all the veterans of the Major years in the Tory party know, that it only takes one or two bad apples to convince the public that all politicians are at it. Put together the low standing of MPs in the public’s mind and the continuing economic hard times and you have the worst possible circumstances in which to have a string of cash-for-access scandals.

Cameron has taken some steps towards dealing with this culture. He has introduced far greater transparency about who ministers and their advisers meet. But so far his actions haven’t been proportionate to the challenge. If he isn’t prepared to do what’s necessary to sweep away the web of influence that has already claimed the reputation of his defence secretary, then it might end up entangling his whole government.