At a cursory glance the website of Alistair Andrews Communications looked convincing enough. Under a montage of the London skyline, the “boutique consultancy” claimed to work “dynamically” with clients to “solve their problems and exceed expectations on mission-critical issues”.
The website included embellishments such as the company’s role in sponsoring an aspiring Olympic athlete and a planned trip by two members of staff to take part in a new geological exploration of Antarctica.
But Alistair Andrews Communications, with its offices in Sydney and London, was in fact the front for a sting operation set up by journalists to see if MPs could still be “hired” for cash. The answer, it was claimed yesterday, was that they could.
Patrick Mercer was apparently first approached by a man calling himself Daniel Mann, who claimed to be working for Alistair Andrews on behalf of their client “Friends of Fiji”.
They were anxious, Mr Mann told him, to build British parliamentary and government support for the Pacific islands’ readmission to the Commonwealth following its suspension in 2009.
The country is currently being run under an effective dictatorship by a former army commander, Frank Bainimarama, who seized power in a 2006 coup. He suspended the country’s constitution, sacked the judiciary and since then his government has been accused of numerous human rights abuses. But none of that apparently deterred Mr Mercer.
“I do not charge a great deal of money for these things,” he was reported as saying during a meeting. “I would normally come out at £500 per half day. So £1,000 a day.”
He reportedly signed a contract worth £2,000 a month to lobby on behalf of Friends of Fiji and also agreed, it was claimed, to provide a pass to parts of the House of Commons for a representative of the fictional client, an apparent breach of rules.
On 26 March, he tabled an Early Day Motion in the House of Commons, stating: “This House recognises that the government of Fiji is making all reasonable efforts to restore democracy, believes that in the light of on-going hardship being endured by its businesses, there is no justification for Fiji’s continued suspension from the Commonwealth, and, therefore, urges the Government to arrange a ministerial visit in order to help prepare for and assist its readmission.”
The motion had in fact been drafted by Alistair Andrews Communications on Mr Mercer’s behalf, without alteration. Less than two months later Mr Mercer also tabled four questions to the Foreign Office minister Hugo Swire, asking what the Government’s current policy was on the islands.
He also began setting up an All-Party Parliamentary Group on Fiji and asked Alistair Andrews to set up an expenses-paid group trip to the islands to see at first hand the progress they were making. Under parliamentary rules, Mr Mercer should have declared the payment from Friends of Fiji in each of these interventions – but apparently failed to do so. He should also have registered the payments he received in the Register of Members’ Interests within a month – but also reportedly failed to do so, in respect of some of the payments.
He “boasted”, it was claimed, that he had managed to persuade 20 MPs to back his pro-Fiji group, and reportedly said: “I mean, who doesn’t want a trip to Fiji?”
Yesterday he announced he was resigning the Conservative whip and would not stand for Parliament at the next election after he was approached by Panorama and asked to comment on his actions. The undercover investigation was carried out by the BBC and The Daily Telegraph.
In a statement, the former shadow minister said: “Panorama is planning to broadcast a programme alleging that I have broken parliamentary rules. I am taking legal advice about these allegations – and I have referred myself to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. In the meantime, to save my party embarrassment, I have resigned the Conservative whip and have so informed [Chief Whip] Sir George Young. I have also decided not to stand at the next general election.”
It is understood he is not refuting the substance of the claims against him but believes he is a victim of entrapment. A Conservative spokesman said the Prime Minister thought the MP had “done the right thing”.
But the affair once again exposes the ease with which lobbyists appear to be able to “buy” the influence of parliamentarians and the failure of the Government to tackle the industry. Plans for a statutory register of lobbyists are currently languishing in the Cabinet Office with no current intention to bring forward legislation.
The Government has also failed to bring forward legislation for a “right to recall”, which would allow MPs found guilty of serious misconduct to be kicked out of the House of Commons. A government spokesman said it is “still being studied by the Cabinet Office”.
Zac Goldsmith, a Conservative backbencher, said the case highlighted the need for voters to get powers to force by-elections. “If it’s bad enough for you to resign from your party, how can it be OK to continue representing constituents at all?” he asked.