Leading article: A lobbying culture that needs to be challenged

 

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Ministerial resignations normally clear the air. The temperature cools immediately and political business resumes as usual. But not in this case. Liam Fox's departure leaves a cloud of unanswered questions over the precise role of his friend, Adam Werritty, in the Ministry of Defence. Had Mr Werritty just been a freeloader on the former minister's multifarious overseas trips it would only be a matter of a friendship that went too far. But as the growing calls for a fraud investigation into Mr Werritty's business activities indicate, much more is at stake here.

What is disturbing about those activities is that they involved members of a number of groups such as the now defunct group, Atlantic Bridge – all lobby groups for various countries or foreign political interests – obtaining privileged access to a senior minister. Labour has made a great brouhaha over the now defunct Atlantic Bridge and its links to climate change sceptics and Tea Party supporters in the US Republican party. More worrying than that is the possibility that Israel's right-wing government enjoyed a kind of hotline to Mr Fox via Mr Werritty's friends in Atlantic Bridge and Bicom.

The Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre describes itself as a "British organisation dedicated to creating a more supportive environment for Israel in Britain". But it is seen as very close to the Israeli government, as was Atlantic Bridge. Whether either organisation paid Mr Werritty for lobbying work remains to be seen. Bicom denies paying Mr Werrity for lobbying work and this week's report on Mr Fox by the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O'Donnell, states that “Both Mr Werrity and Dr Fox are clear that Mr Werrity never lobbied Dr Fox on behalf of donors” (including Bicom).

But even if nothing is proved on that point, that cannot be the end of it because a separate charge remains standing: did Mr Fox allow an unofficial adviser to effectively conduct an unofficial foreign policy, parallel to that of the Foreign Office? The Foreign Secretary himself, William Hague, denied this possibility yesterday. But he is not yet in a position to pronounce on the question with real authority until it becomes clear how often his former colleague met these lobbyists. We should also remember that Mr Hague has an interest in defending Mr Fox. The two men have a similar, though not identical, anti-European, ardently pro-American outlook, which explains why Atlantic Bridge once enjoyed Mr Hague's sympathy. Mr Fox's downfall rids Mr Hague of a rival on the right of the Conservative Party, but Mr Hague is understandably wary of joining the onslaught on Mr Fox lest their joint cause become discredited along with the man.

Meanwhile, the Fox-Werritty affair is a gift for those who, especially in the wake of the MPs' expanses scandal, regard politicians with great suspicion and who would like to see all of their actions, conversations, meetings and indeed friendships subjected to ever-tighter supervision. We should by all means look again at the code of ministerial conduct for glaring loopholes, and the planned register of lobbies is to be welcomed.

At the same time we should beware of acting hastily to sweep away a scandal if that prevents a thorough consideration of the role of lobbyists and their backers and hangers-on in Britain's political life. If the inquiry into this affair is to be expanded to cover lobbying in general, as some are calling for, we must not search for instant panaceas to a deep-seated ill. Lobbying has become part of the warp and woof of Britain's modern political culture and moves to counter its subtle but pernicious influence must be carefully considered.

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