Lobbyists: Image men go for an in-depth makeover of industry tainted by sleaze

If there is one group of people who most need the help of lobbyists to improve their image, it is the lobbyists themselves.

They are often seen as shadowy figures who offer cash for parliamentary questions, subvert the good intentions of our public figures, and promote the interests of unsavoury regimes and individuals.

In the post-election party conferences the lobbyists were notable for their absence.

The year before there had been more lobbyists than delegates at the Conservative Party conference.

But after all those years of lavish hospitality they had decided it was more prudent to stay away.

In an effort to clean up their image, lobbyists have asked Parliament to regulate their industry.

The Association of Professional Political Consultants has already put a total ban on any financial dealings with MPs for its members, and Ian Greer is no longer with the association.

It was Ian Greer who is blamed for being responsible, more than anyone, for bringing the lobbyists' profession into disrepute with his involvement in the cash-for-questions saga, in which Conservative MPs were paid for asking questions in the Commons on behalf of Mohamed al Fayed.

But lobbying is still a lucrative pounds 500m-a-year industry, and the companies can still claim substantial fees from their clients in return for putting the right word in the right ear.

The key word in the industry is discretion, and this can become especially important when the client is a foreign government. Very few firms admit to such deals, although Thatcher confidante Sir Tim Bell is reputed to have foreign governments among his 450-plus clients.

Until the present local difficulty, working as a lobbyist was almost de rigeur for political activists.

Murray Elder, the right- hand man to Donald Dewar, Secretary of State for Scotland, had a spell at Westminster Communications, and Derek Draper, once Peter Mandelson's researcher, works for Prima Europe. Another Mandelson aide, Colin Byrne, now works at Shadwick's, while Mike Lee, a former David Blunkett, man is at Westminster Strategy.

All of these are regarded as honourable men who would vehemently deny that they have any truck with Greer-type sleaze.

Many of them have argued for tighter guidelines. However, one former lobbyist who can still guarantee that a politician can be bought is Iain Dale - but they would merely be models, photos, and faces on mugs at Politico's, his shop specialising in political ware at Westminster.