Patrick Mercer scandal: There is no guide book for MPs on how they should side-step the temptations of covert lobbying

Scale of the lobbying industry has meant self-regulation no longer appears to be working

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The Independent Online

Somewhere in amongst the hundreds of telephone calls an MP will take in a day,  there will be one where the only sensible option is to put the receiver down or press the end-call button. 

There is however no guide book, or enlightened biblical manifesto for MPs on how they should side-step the temptations of Westminster’s eighth deadly sin – covert lobbying.  The dangerous call, when it comes,  just seems too irresistible.

Patrick Mercer, it would appear, is allegedly the latest individual to fall foul of the somewhat lose rules governing parliamentary engagements, and decide to bat for a team who preferred to keep their publicity strategy under the radar.

The former chancellor, Alistair Darling, when Labour was engulfed in its own lobbying scandal in early 2010, said being able to spot the call “should be obvious”. But all  MPs think the same thing: getting caught by a sting only happens to others.

Darling watched from 11 Downing Street as three former ministers – Stephen Byers, Patricia Hewitt and Geoff Hoon – faced a sleaze investigation after being filmed apparently offering to exploit their governmental contacts for cash.  Byers not only failed to spot the call, he failed to spot the camera that recorded him saying he was like a “sort of cab for hire” which in his case charged, he said, rates of up to £5000 a day.

Hoon, like his former colleagues, was reported to demand £3000 a day, because the fee justified the  political alchemy of turning insider parliamentary knowledge into capital contacts. He later said he wanted to make it clear that he had not sold confidential or privileged information arising from his time in government.

Mr Mercer is alleged to have been given a £2,000 a month contract to boost the political respectability of Fiji – a regime severely short of that particular quality in its current form.

If Byers is correct, and there’s rolling evidence that he is, the reporters pretending to represent Fiji's interests, held a view of the Palace of Westminster akin to a lengthy taxi rank where some MPs and select Lords wait to be flagged down and regardless of the destination, click their meters on and anticipate the numbers rising.

Those who’ve watched similar recklessness destroy their parliamentary careers and reputation, include Neil Hamilton in the cash-for-questions affair, Michael Brown and his liaison with a US tobacco firm, Jonathan Aitken in the fallout from the arms-to-Iraq scandal, and the group of four Lords who in 2009 told a reporter posing as a lobbyist that they could influence legislation provided the cash sums were big enough. Although the House of Lords voted for short suspensions for their naughty colleagues, the Metropolitan Police took no action.

Viewed from the outside, Westminster is capable of either looking in the wrong place, or turning away when the heat gets too close to the core of serious political power. As the American writer PJ O’Rourke put it, if we’re looking for a fundamental ill in our society, forget testing for drugs, instead test for “stupidity, ignorance, greed and love of power.”

A few months before winning the last election, David Cameron appeared to recognise not only the wit, but the wisdom in what O’Rourke was saying. He  predicted that “lobbying” was an issue that crossed party lines, tainted Britain’s politics, and there was a far-too-cosy relationship between politics, government, business and money.

A future Conservative government, he promised, would shine “the light of transparency” on who was buying influence and power.

The reality, three years later?  Chloe Smith, the Cabinet Office minister in charge of future lobby industry legislation, has apparently not held any meetings with leading  lobbyists since being given the job last year. 

The disappointment was to be expected. Tony Blair, when he won his first term in 1997, had hinted that “being a pretty straightforward kind of guy”, his government would be doing things differently.  However an accepted £1 million donation to the Labour Party from the head of Formula 1, Bernie Ecclestone, followed by an exemption for F1 from the EU’s proposed ban on tobacco advertising, quickly ended the illusion.

The cash-for-honours scandal in 2006, where peerages seemed to be on sale if the price was right, suggested covert lobbying and the taxi rank outside Westminster, was only scratching the surface of how power really functioned in Britain.  But again, after a lengthy police investigation, no prosecutions were brought.

So what did "Fiji" try to buy when they flagged down Mr Mercer? What does any company, multi-national or billionaire hope to achieve when they “hire” someone on the inside-track of power?  Darling, who couldn’t comprehend the failure of his parliamentary colleagues to spot a sting, is scathing about what companies are doing when they hail an MP. “You don’t need a lobbyist,” said the former chancellor, “If you’ve got something to say, go directly to the government department and make your case.”

On Darling’s analysis, the entire lobbying industry in the UK, estimated to be worth more than £2 billion a year and which employs over 10,000 people, is unneeded, unwanted and unnecessary.

That, frankly, isn’t the case. But the scale of the lobbying industry, which has grown substantially since Winston Churchill was “hired” by BP in 1923  to influence government policy on Persian oil reserves, has meant self-regulation no longer appears to be working.

If that is to change, David Cameron needs to ignore an influential and loud voice at the centre of British politics  – the lobbying industry itself.  That is something no prime minister has been able to do.