David Cameron has warned future Conservative MPs not to mire a new Tory government in a fresh lobbying scandal amid concerns over the high number of his party's candidates with links to the industry.
The Tory leader fears that the number of incoming Conservative MPs with connections to lobbying firms could hit his administration with a similar scandal that has seen three former cabinet ministers suspended from the Labour Party. Dozens of Tory candidates in winnable seats are either lobbyists or have recently left the industry.
The warning came as more senior Tory MPs and even figures with access to the party's leadership came under the spotlight for their links to the lobbying industry. It has emerged that the former Conservative leader Michael Howard was one of four Tory MPs who showed initial interest in working for a fake US firm, set up by Channel 4's Dispatches team. He later told the company that he was no longer interested. Conservative Central Office was tipped off about a possible sting operation involving a lobbying firm after the plan was rumbled by Julie Kirkbride, the Tory MP for Bromsgrove.
A key figure in the Tory's strategy team has also come from the lobbying world. George Bridges, who now works closely with George Osborne, used to be employed by Quiller, which keeps its list of clients secret. "George is not a former minister offering access," a spokesman for the party said. "He no longer works in the lobbying industry."
The company's website states: "We understand the importance of discretion, and of being able to give independent advice from a position of trust." It is owned by Huntsworth, a public relations firm headed by Lord Chadlington, president of David Cameron's Oxfordshire constituency of Witney.
While MPs are allowed to hold positions with public relations firms, being paid to lobby the Government on behalf of a company is outlawed. However, the Tory leader fears that a large "grey area" about just what constitutes lobbying could land his new MPs in trouble. Many Tory candidates are now giving up their positions.
"Frankly, it's a problem for new governments, it really is," Mr Cameron said yesterday. "The new MPs arrive, the new ministers get their jobs, the new government starts and business and lobbyists are all over them. I know this will happen," he added. "There will be no special access for anybody." Senior Tory sources confirmed that the warning was for the benefit of incoming MPs as well as businesses hoping to gain access to new Conservative ministers. "With the new people coming in you would potentially be sitting on a big problem, so why not pre-empt it," the source said. "It was a message to everyone to watch this."
George Eustice, Mr Cameron's former spokesman and the party's candidate for Camborne, Redruth and Hayle, said that he had left his role at Portland PR at the end of last month. "The most effective way to deal with this is to have a government that does not harbour the culture of lobbying," he said. Margot James, the candidate for Stourbridge who had been a freelance consultant, admitted setting up a meeting between a client and a member of the Shadow Cabinet. Her fee was donated to charity.
"I have made some introductions to shadow ministers for charities and businesses," she said. "I make these links purely on a public interest basis. I have never, on principle, made such introductions for commercial gain, and I never would whilst I am standing for public office. If I am elected then I will proceed in the same vein."
Mr Cameron ruled out a peerage for the Tory grandee caught up in the lobbygate scandal. Sir John Butterfill boasted to undercover journalists that it was "quite likely" that he would end up in the Lords. After being caught by the same programme, the former Labour ministers Stephen Byers, Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt are to be investigated by Westminster's standards watchdog.
The Tory leader also kept up pressure for a "brief but comprehensive" inquiry into allegations that the Government was influenced by MPs acting on behalf of businesses. Gordon Brown has already dismissed the need for an inquiry. However, Mr Cameron was also accused of hypocrisy yesterday for not backing the introduction of a compulsory register of lobbyists. Currently, the firms are under no obligation to reveal a list of their clients. Both the Liberal Democrats and Labour have pledged to introduce a compulsory register.
A grassroots campaign has also been set up to pressure Mr Cameron into backing the register. The online petition, devised by the 38 Degrees group, had already attracted more than 2,000 signatures just two hours after its launch yesterday morning.
"David Cameron acknowledges that 'secret corporate lobbying' is damaging public trust in UK politics, yet has so far refused to commit to the one measure that would expose it to public scrutiny," said Tamasin Cave, of the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency.
The new generation: Prospective Tories with connections
Priti Patel, Witham
Currently works for Weber Shandwick, a public relations firm that includes Barclays among its clients. She has been accused of not being clear about her lobbying links to potential constituents, as her website states that she works for a firm providing "business and communication strategy". She told The Independent she was "not a lobbyist".*Margot James, Stourbridge
Has admitted she arranged a meeting between business contacts and a shadow Cabinet member through her work as a freelance public relations consultant, but "purely on a public interest basis". The £1,000-plus fee was donated to a local charity in her constituency. She said: "I gave up my PR work just before Christmas and will not be resuming it."
George Eustice, Cambourne, Redruth and Hayle
Former press secretary to David Cameron, hired by Portland PR last March for his expert knowledge of the Tory leadership. Portland's clients include Google and Tesco. However, he told The Independent that he left the firm at the end of last month to concentrate on winning his seat and would not return.
Conor Burns, Bournemouth West
Confirmed to The Independent that he carries out some work for Political Lobbying and Media Relations. He has set up meetings with a shadow minister in the past on behalf of his clients, but said he only did so before his selection. "Of course, I will be giving up this work if I am elected," he said.
Ben Jeffreys, Cheadle
A part-time consultant for Bellenden Public Affairs. Though the company has worked on behalf of the Association of School and College Leaders, he has denied any conflict of interest and insists he has not exploited his political connections for the firm. Describes himself as a "liberal Conservative" on the progressive wing of the party.
Penny Mordaunt, Portsmouth North
Currently describes herself as a "healthcare consultant". Campaign for Lobbying Transparency believes she has not been "completely straightforward" about her lobbying links. She is listed as a director of Media Intelligence Partners, a firm which boasts "excellent contacts among Conservative politicians"