Steve Richards: Now we see this industry has oversold itself

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The Independent Online

Cabinet ministers are human beings. They know people. They have friends and former colleagues who are sometimes also friends. Some of their friends and former colleagues become lobbyists. Their closeness to ministers is the reason they secure lucrative jobs.

This is not healthy, but is unavoidable unless a ban is placed on ministers having friends, or on former special advisers having no further contact of any kind with ministers once they have left their employment. Obviously this will not happen and could not happen. So what matters is to make access as transparent as possible.

Most of the time it is. Ask Liam Fox, who thought he could get away with giving one friend unique access. He is now an ex-minister. Lobbyists are in some ways transparent in that their task is clearly stated. We have always known that they partly seek to provide access for clients. In yesterday's Independent the former Conservative MP, Tim Collins, was caught showing off about how much access he could provide to rogue regimes.

No doubt he knows William Hague, Steve Hilton and Ed Llewellyn. Whether he knows them well enough that the trio would have risked their careers on behalf of various tyrants is another matter. With amoral resolution, Collins was trying to secure a lucrative deal and went for the hard sell.

One consequence is that his company Bell Pottinger will need a lot of hard selling to secure new contracts in the future. An art of the lobbyist is to appear not only to have insider knowledge but also to convey a sharp "know it all" modernity, so clients feel fashionably connected. Any blemish makes the lobbyists' art impossible to accomplish. An apparent willingness to mediate on behalf of rogue regimes is a near fatal blemish.

Collins was caught exaggerating the degree he held sway with the powerful, as others have been in the past. The swagger tends to be especially marked early in the life of a new government, when relationships between new ministers and those with whom they used to work are fresh. Early in the life of New Labour, Derek Draper boasted that there were only a few people who mattered in government and he knew them all. Both boasts were true, but Draper might still have made use of that access if he were not a lobbyist. In both his case and that of Collins, the issue is not that they knew ministers or had access to them, but whether they could provide unfair influence for clients who pay them in return.

Sometimes lobbyists provide a fast-track route to ministers. Whether government policies change as a result is much harder to measure. Most cabinet ministers do not have much power and junior ministers even less. The few that do are usually capable of thinking for themselves and unlikely to be persuaded by lobbyists or meetings with the lobbyists' clients.

The main issue in relation to some lobbyists is their indiscriminate greed. The issue for their clients is whether the lobbyists are worth quite as much as they assume. The rest of us need to know more in order to make that judgement too.

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