In Bournemouth, the lobbyists were busy putting a word in here and picking up snippets of political intelligence there. As many as a hundred were plying their trade.
Most people do notunderstand what a lobbyist does, and their own explanation is not too helpful. Margery Kraus, the American boss of APCO, a burgeoning newcomer in the business, says: "I consider lobbying to be education and even though it has a pejorative sense, I think a good lobbyist is a good educator ... We are really facilitators."
They were facilitating away with the best of them last week. Rachel Odd, of Phoenix Public Relations, remarked gaily: "It is a lovely, fun way to earn a living. It's all about getting to know people and understanding what they want and how to deliver it. I don't think it has to be sinister."
In the late Eighties and early Nineties, lobby companies trading on the timidity and political ignorance of private-sector firms could command pounds 15,000 a month simply to keep them abreast of affairs and in some kind of touch with those controlling them. It is still commonplace to pay pounds 75,000 a year for "an ongoing relationship".
One lobbyist compares himself to a lawyer. "In the same way that a lawyer will advise a client on the best way to present his case in a court of law, we advise people so that the government incorporates their point of view when making a policy decision.
"We try to shape the environment in which decisions are taken and increasingly that means not just meeting with MPs and ministers, but also working with the media and finding other organisations - think-tanks and pressure groups - that share your objectives."
Something was missing at Bournemouth: the reassuring presence of the doyen of their trade, Ian Greer. In the wake of the cash-for-questions scandal involving the disgraced ex-minister Neil Hamilton MP, he stayed away for the first time in many years because he did not want to "expose my clients to a media circus". The Greer Affair has put a new and unsavoury gloss on the lobby industry.
In a corner of the appropriately named Smugglers' Bar at the conference centre, a high-flyer confessed: "The Greer-Hamilton thing reinforces uninformed - but definitely pre-existing - prejudices, and that has got to be bad for the industry. The challenge facing us now is to rebuild confidence."
The talk at Bournemouth was about who would get Ian Greer Associates' lucrative clients. "It isn't a brand without Ian Greer, and with him it is a fundamentally damaged brand," observes one lobbyist.
Others ask: after Greer, who will become the new doyen? The name most commonly mentioned is Nick DeLuca, 37, formerly a lobbyist in the US Senate and senior associate of APCO UK.
On the cocktail circuit, the key topic of inquiry was whether the lobby industry would survive the Greer Affair. Some believe they will eventually be subsumed into the public relations industry, or become part of an organisation's in-house public affairs function. And all because the lobbyists were too successful at finding an MP's G-spot.Reuse content