Senior executives at Bell Pottinger claimed they could arrange meetings with the Business Secretary's special adviser on behalf of a client.
Tim Collins, managing director of Bell Pottinger Public Affairs, told undercover reporters that the best way to get to Vince Cable was through his political adviser Giles Wilkes. And Mr Collins's colleague suggested that as a result of Bell Pottinger's intervention, Mr Cable had visited a factory owned by one of the firm's clients that was looking for Government assistance.
Mr Collins said in taped conversations with undercover reporters from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism – who were posing as representatives of Uzbekistan's government in a bid to find out what promises British lobbying companies make when pitching for business – that the Business Secretary could be cantankerous and the best way to approach him was through Mr Wilkes. Mr Collins added that one of Bell Pottinger's staff used to work for the Liberal Democrats and had close relationships with all of the party's special advisers working in Government.
"Stephen Lotinga, my colleague, knows Giles [Wilkes] very well, he headed up the Liberal Democrat home policy unit until the time of the general election so all the people who went into government and became Liberal Democrat special advisers all worked for him," Mr Collins said. "So he knows all of them, still talks to them socially. We actually took a client in to see Giles last week, last Thursday, so it's not something that is difficult for us to do."
Mr Collins said of Mr Cable: "Vince's starting point on a lot of these issues is he will think about politics and the presentation first and substance second.
"Giles spent a lot of time in the City; he's quite a hard-headed business person... he will say let's actually look at what's in it for UK PLC first and foremost and worry about the politics slightly afterwards. I would suggest we get Giles onside first and then we think about approaching Vince."
'We helped to orchestrate a visit from Vince Cable'
David Wilson, chairman of Bell Pottinger Public Relations, said: "We've just started work with Lotus cars who have got a massive investment from Malaysia through Proton, their owner. And we helped orchestrate a visit from Vince Cable on Monday because of the investment that's going in because they are looking for grant aid to develop new factories, which would create new jobs."
Last night, a spokeswoman for Mr Cable admitted that Mr Cable's adviser Mr Wilkes did know Mr Lotinga and they "had bumped into each other" on several occasions but said it was "not an especially close relationship".
She denied that Bell Pottinger had helped facilitate any meetings with Mr Cable or Mr Wilkes and the visit to the Lotus factory had not been facilitated by Bell Pottinger in any way.
Mr Collins also told the undercover reporters that it would not be in their interests to give a political donation to the Conservatives because it could be "counter-productive". He said: "Under electoral law political parties are only allowed to accept donations from individuals or companies who are wholly or almost entirely based in the UK.
"It's becoming in some cases more difficult for a company that has given money to the party in power to get in certain meetings and get what they want than it is for a party that hasn't because the media is hugely focused on scruples so I wouldn't recommend that."
'These are all the people that we know very well'
Mr Collins also boasted other connections within Parliament: "Alastair Burt who is the [Foreign Office] minister with direct responsibility for this part of the world, again someone I know very well, I served in Parliament alongside him. Arminka Helic who is the special adviser to the Foreign Secretary who deals with policy issues. The name as you may gather is a Serb name so she has had a lot of interest in human rights issues and spreading democracy." He added: "To run through some of the Members of Parliament – this is not intended to be an exhaustive list, just an illustrative list – these are all people that we know, that we know very well. James Arbuthnot for example is the chair of the Defence Select Committee. When I was an opposition whip he was a chief whip, so he and I know each other very well. Rory Stewart is a very high-profile member of Parliament because he's got a very strong interest in Central Asian issues, he represents the constituency that is next to mine when I was a Member of Parliament so I know him... lots of others."
Last night, Mr Stewart said he met Mr Collins once, for 10 minutes. He added: "It's a very worthwhile issue for you [The Independent] to be pursuing. I do believe we need to address the problem of lobbying in British political life.
"Exactly what the connection is between lobbying forms, MPs and foreign governments needs to be clarified – we need very clear rules. MPs need to be very, very careful about any contact they have with these groups." The Foreign Office said: "While Alistair Burt knows Tim Collins from his time as an MP, he has not had any meetings with him since he became a minister. Alistair Burt is not even the minister who covers Uzbekistan. Arminka Helic has never knowingly had any meetings or any other contact with Mr Collins."
A spokesman for the Department of for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) said: "Mark Prisk has had no dealings with Tim Collins since being appointed as a minister. In line with the Government's transparency policy, all meetings that BIS ministers have are published on a monthly basis on our website."
'We need to ensure the rich cannot buy access to the PM'
Last night, the Shadow Cabinet Office minister Jon Trickett said there were concerns over whether the Government was fully committed to "fully reforming" the lobbying industry. He said the Government had still refused to divulge meetings between lobbyists and the minister responsible for drawing up the new rules. The Government has delayed the announcement of the new regulations until January, he added – having delayed it already from November. He also pointed out that despite rules that departments must publish ministerial meeting every three months, the Cabinet Office, which is responsible for transparency, had not published details of any meetings since March.
Mr Trickett accused the Government of being "too close to corporate interests. We have been calling on the Government to implement a statutory register of lobbyists. We need reform".
Mr Cameron's spokesman said: "I simply do not accept that there was undue access." Neither Mr Lilley nor Mr Arbuthnot were available for comment. Lord Bell, chairman of Bell Pottinger's parent company Chime Communications, said he would be complaining to the Press Complaints Commission about the "sting". "There is no public interest in this story," he said. "There is absolutely no suggestion of any impropriety either. If there was, I would sue them."
Friends in high places? The claimed links – and the denials
"We helped orchestrate a visit from Vince Cable on Monday... because they are looking for grant aid to develop new factories which would create new jobs."
"Bell Pottinger has not arranged meetings or introductions with any of their clients." Cable spokeswoman
"James Arbuthnot ... is the chair of the Defence Select Committee. When I was an opposition whip he was a chief whip, so he and I know each other very well."
Tim Collins, Mr Arbuthnot was unavailable for comment
"Rory Stewart is a very high-profile member of Parliament... he represents the constituency that is next to mine... so I know him."
"I met him once, for 10 minutes. I do believe we need to address the problem of lobbying in British political life."
"Alistair Burt is ... someone I know very well. I served in Parliament alongside him."
"While Alistair Burt knows Tim Collins from his time as an MP, he has not had any meetings with him since he became a Minister."
Foreign Office spokesman
"Arminka Helic, who is the special adviser to the Foreign Secretary, who deals with policy issues."
"Arminka Helic has never knowingly had any meetings or any other contact with Mr Collins."
Foreign Office spokesman
* Lobbyists - full related links
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism