Media: He lives to fight VAT another day: Budget battles do not come any tougher. Michael Leapman meets the mastermind of the publishers' campaign

Towards the end of last week's Budget speech Kenneth Clarke, Chancellor of the Exchequer, spoke of the powerful case that could be made for imposing value-added tax on newspapers - as well as several other commodities - and commented: 'No amount of lobbying should put us off.'

Watching on television at the central London headquarters of the Newspaper Society, the trade body for the regional press, its director and chief lobbyist Dugal Nisbet- Smith was seized with despair. 'This is it,' he told colleagues. 'We've had it now.'

He was certain that his fourth campaign in eight years against the VAT threat had ended in defeat. In minutes, he would have to put into effect his contingency plan A - a series of stiff letters to MPs and ministers - in the forlorn hope of getting the decision changed before the Budget became law.

On the screen, the Chancellor teasingly digressed for a bit. Then, just before sitting down, he said there would be no need this year to expand the VAT base after all. The lobbyists had triumphed again.

Mr Nisbet-Smith was jubilant. Plan A was shelved in favour of plan B - taking the champagne out of the fridge and sending down to the kitchen for glasses.

'I was as surprised as I was delighted,' he said when the euphoria had died down last week. 'It was the most emotional night of all four campaigns. It was the toughest of them and we had convinced ourselves we were going to lose.'

Only a few weeks earlier, in his monthly newsletter to members, he had written of 'a sinking feeling throughout the industry that we are heading for the fourth and last VAT round-up'.

Lord Lawson, the target of the first campaign, disclosed in his memoirs that he was dissuaded from imposing the tax in 1985 only by the intervention of Baroness Thatcher, who did not want to share the hostile headlines. On that occasion - and whenever newspapers have headed off legislative threats to their bank balances or their freedom to publish - credit was given to the proprietors and editors of the national press. They were assumed have used their muscle on ministers at top-secret dinners, making dire threats over the port and cigars to withdraw political support.

Some of that certainly goes on, but the role of the regional press, though largely unsung, is just as significant. Mr Nisbet-Smith, a former journalist and press executive, has been running the Newspaper Society for 10 years. He explained: 'There are 650 MPs out there who have constituencies and each one has a local or regional paper. There isn't an MP who doesn't rely on that paper as a conduit to get his message across. An MP who supports a tax that could damage that newspaper substantially has an antagonistic paper to deal with.'

At the beginning of the year, before Norman Lamont's final Budget, Mr Nisbet-Smith and his deputy David Newell identified 25 Conservative MPs inclined to vote against VAT on newspapers should it be proposed. 'Our strategy was to make sure the opposition of those core MPs was made known to the whips and filtered through to cabinet ministers,' Mr Newell said.

The danger passed in March, but at the start of the latest campaign there were worrying signs that some of these MPs were vacillating.

'The number who would go to the stake was getting smaller,' said Mr Newell. 'With the high public- sector borrowing requirement, they told us we couldn't assume they would support us in November. We had to construct a campaign that tried to turn those MPs back into supporters, and that was where the local press came in.'

'Nobody escaped,' Mr Nisbet- Smith continued. 'John Major and Mr Clarke were accosted many times on regional visits by local editors, working on briefing papers that we supplied. It was an enormous exercise, co-ordinated from here. There was a do for regional editors at No 10 in October. The editor of one of the Birmingham papers went in with his press card round his neck and a 'VAT-Free' logo stuck on it.'

The papers kept the issue on the boil by running advertisements and articles supplied by the Newspaper Society. And while stressing the local approach, Mr Nisbet-Smith did not neglect the traditional lobbying technique of feeding the already well-fed.

Every month he hosts a lunch for about 20 influential people, including ministers. While Mr Clarke has so far refused invitations to this event, one recent guest was the Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay.

'He seemed to know a surprising amount about VAT on newspapers,' Mr Nisbet-Smith recalled. 'That worried us quite a bit.'

The national papers, members of the Newspaper Publishers' Association, conducted their collective campaign through Westminster Strategy, a firm of full-time lobbyists whose clients include the Police Federation, the Bar Council and the Automobile Association. MPs were invited to meals and meetings and bombarded with figures supporting the newspapers' case.

The well-publicised Hands Off Reading Campaign, involving books as well as papers, stressed the need to foster educational standards by keeping the price of printed material down. Having Lord Bullock as chairman and Lord Beloff as his deputy underlined its academic aspirations. The campaign circulated a photomontage combining the heads of William Gladstone - the man who lifted the tax on newspapers in 1861 - and Mr Clarke, the man threatening to reimpose it.

A third parallel campaign was mounted by the Periodical Publishers' Association on behalf of magazines. Advertisements were placed in about 1,000 of the 1,500 titles owned by the PPA's 180 members, highlighting the pledges Mr Major had made to reduce illiteracy.

A survey was commissioned into the effect of VAT on magazines, concluding that 700 titles could close and 4,200 jobs be lost. A similar survey for the Newspaper Society foresaw the possible death of 245 of its 1,300 member papers.

Now all three lobby groups can relax - but not for long. The issue of VAT on newspapers is like a boxer with more resilience than sense: you may floor him repeatedly but he always gets up for more.

'Our next worry is next November,' says Mr Nisbet-Smith. 'In the middle of next year we'll take soundings again. It's always hard to know when there's a real threat and when it's a figment of our imagination. But when we feel in our bones that this thing is back on the agenda we begin to get a little more active in meeting politicians and senior civil servants to try to plumb the depths of the mystery: is it true or are we being paranoid about it?'

Whatever the answer, MPs can brace themselves for another bout of free lunches.

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Sport
Seth Rollins cashes in his Money in the Bank contract to win the WWE World Heavyweight Championship
WWERollins wins the WWE World Heavyweight title in one of the greatest WrestleMania's ever seen
Arts and Entertainment
Sacha Baron Cohen is definitely not involved in the Freddie Mercury biopic, Brian May has confirmed
film
News
(David Sandison)
newsHow living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
News
news
News
Boyband star Brian Harvey is on benefits and on the verge of homelessness
people
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Recruitment Genius: Advertisement Sales Manager

£21000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A publishing company based in F...

Guru Careers: Product Design Engineer / UX Designer

£20 - 35k: Guru Careers: We are seeking a tech savvy Product Design Engineer /...

Guru Careers: German Speaking Account Manager

£24-30K + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: German speaking Account Manager / ...

Guru Careers: System Administrator / Sys Admin

£23 - 30K (DOE) + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a System Ad...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor