Matthew Norman: Do unethical lobbyists feel any pain at the dirty, seedy role they play in politics?

For all the Michelin meals, first-class air travel and fat salaries, they are not to be envied

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Was ever a man a finer advert for the services he offers than Tim Bell, the lobbying activities of whose firm, Bell Pottinger, this newspaper revealed yesterday? Any despot wavering over whether to join brethren from Belarus and Sri Lanka in hiring Lord Bell's image-laundering skills will have their doubts quashed by a visit to his own Wikipedia entry. All the dirty linen has been magically vanished.

There is no mention of his capacious cocaine habit while in advertising, for instance, or of the conviction (touched on here recently) for practising the erotic arts as a soloist in clear view of those passing his Hampstead Heath home. Why he eschewed the title Lord Bell-End of Much Tossing Over-The-Heath is beyond me. He was a gigantic tool then, and so he remains judging by his pitiful blustering over this instance of decent exposure... or as he put it the "underhand, unethical deception" used by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism "to manufacture a story where none exists".

A story does exist, of course, and it's a depressingly familiar one for both our democracy and the victims of distant dictatorships. It is a story as old as civilisation, in fact. So long as there has been a body politic to host them, parasites have feasted on its blood.

This is not to say lobbying itself is inherently wrong. There is no better lobbyist in Britain than Liberty's Shami Chakrabarti, who works openly and in public, as the etymological roots of the verb "to lobby" hint she should. Flitting ghoulishly in the shadows, meanwhile, is Bell Pottinger's managing director, Tim Collins, the ex-Tory MP caught boasting of his access to senior ministers; bragging of having persuaded David Cameron to talk to the Chinese premier in the interests of a client; and trumpeting his firm's mastery of the "dark arts" required to launder Wikipedia entries, as we wonder whether Tim may have done to his own.

The only comic relief in this gruesome tale was Mr Collins's offer to set up a lunch with Danny Finkelstein, the enviably gifted Times columnist with close connections to the Tory leadership. I met Danny recently over dinner, and he reported never having tried any drug on the sole ground that it's illegal. Come off it, I said, you must have driven at 33 in a 30mph zone. Never, he said, because that is against the law. Citing Danny Finkelstein as a willing participant in any dodgy dealing highlights what chancers and bluffers lobbyists like Mr Collins tend to be.

You may recall him from his time as a bag carrier to William Hague (to whom he also offers access). He might have been the model for Harry Enfield's shrilly right-wing adolescent Tory Boy, and was every inch as greasy as his Pride and Prejudice namesake. With Mr Hague for his Lady Catherine de Bourgh, he reached the shadow Cabinet. But when he lost his seat in 2005, he did what so many Tories kicked out in 1997 had done, and what various New Labour horrors would later do. He made the short journey from Westminster to Mayfair, swapping the modestly paid drudgery of the MP for the plush, Savile Row-suited life of the high-rent lobbyist.

In an alternative capacity as a restaurant critic, I see men resembling Mr Collins or Adam Werritty ordering caviar and lingering over 100-year-old Armagnac while sat opposite Middle Eastern gentlemen in Belgravia and Knightsbridge. The auto-assumption is that these chaps (though Chris Huhne's partner Carina Trimingham defies the sexist presumption) are lobbyists with MoD links.

For all the Michelin meals, first-class air travel and fat salaries, they are not to be envied. I doubt they often wake whimpering with guilt about their work for arms dealers, oil firms and dictators. Theirs is axiomatically an amoral occupation. But nor can Mr Collins be content in his job. Once, he dreamed of high office and raw power, and perhaps the chance to change Britain for the better. He is richer today, and works far gentler hours, but it must pain him that he had to settle for such a dirty, seedy, shady little role on the periphery of a world he once hoped to conquer. Mr Collins may look the model of respectability, but you wouldn't care to see his Dorian Gray portrait. Nor, one suspects, would he.

Yet he keeps within the law, and is hardly the most repulsive representative of his unlovely trade. That honour belongs to the man who ennobled his boss Tim Bell in 1998. For what is a lobbyist of this brand if not, as Mr Collins unwittingly revealed, a contacts book on legs... and which lobbyist has juicier direct line numbers or uses them more deftly than Mr Tony Blair?

While Bell Pottinger offered to spruce up Uzbekistan's human rights profile for £100,000 a month, Mr T may have earned untold millions for advising the lifetime president of neighbouring Kazakhstan on laundering his reputation, as he pocketed a reported £27m from the government of Kuwait, and an unknown amount from lobbying for a multi-billion mobile phone contract on the West Bank. This latter allegation emerged in an edition of Channel 4's Dispatches, by the way, and, for Mr Blair's future benefit, he is reminded that Mr Collins says he can have that strand attacked by pliant MPs.

Before the last election, David Cameron spoke of lobbying as the next huge scandal, and within a few months his Government was paying a Washington lobbyist £500,000 to promote British-made armaments. If the revelations in this newspaper have reignited his ambition to tame the lobbyists, he could begin by reference to his predecessor.

He might say that Mr Blair's apparent attempt to fix a satellite deal for Rupert Murdoch, which effectively legitimised the misuse of access to the powerful, was not legitimate at all; and that the only legitimate place for lobbying is in the metaphorical lobby – in plain sight, in other words, of anyone passing by. Masturbation is an activity best performed in private, he might add, but lobbying is not.

By way of a delectable pun, Lord Bell named Bell Pottinger's holding company Chime Communications, and I visited its website. Although Tim Collins says he can fix Google so the first entries from a search for "Uzbek child labour" cover the giant strides made there (ha ha) to stop it, the site looked kosher to me. In pride of place sits this motto: "In a transparent world, your reputation can be the difference between success and failure". How very, very true. What a transparent world it is when the odious lobbyist's offer to reinvent a brutal despot as Santa can only be illuminated by hidden cameras.

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