The venue was a private room in Quag-lino's, Sir Terence Conran's fashionable restaurant in London's St James's; the date, March 1994. More than a dozen Whitehall political advisers had gathered for a bibulous three-course dinner - and none had brought their cheque books.
It was, as one of those present recalled last week, a pleasant evening with "no hard sell", just the usual cultivating of contacts which oils the wheels of Westminster. As the coffees and brandies arrived, the silver- haired host, Ian Bramwell Greer, buttered up his audience with a speech thanking them for their help over the years. One responded with a brief but cordial vote of thanks to their host.
Several months and some bad publicity later, Mr Greer sent round another invitation to the political advisers to dine at L'Escargot in Soho. This time the event was cancelled due to lack of response.
It says something about Mr Greer's influence over British politics that, two years after he became damaged goods, he managed last week to cast a shadow over not one but two party conferences. A week which began with Neil Hamilton's sensational decision to drop his Guardian libel action, ended with the sacking of a Labour frontbencher.
There was little in his early career to suggest that Mr Greer would become a powerful political influence. He was born in 1933 and educated at Cranbrook College in Essex and Victoria School in Glasgow, joining Conservative Central Office in 1956. Contemporaries remember him as a ginger-haired character with a distinct Scottish accent a long way from the polished southern vowels of today. Mr Greer became the party's youngest ever agent (a full-time party post then and reasonably paid) working the Billericay beat. There followed a three-year spell as national director of the Mental Health Trust before he returned to the political world. In 1970 he set up a consultancy with a friend, John Russell, a venture which, after only modest success, ended when the two fell out in 1980. But within two years he had bounced back, founding Ian Greer Associates just in time for the coming boom. One of the first British lobbyists, Mr Greer was well ahead of the game when, in the 1980s, Thatcherism not only expanded the economy but opened government to new areas of private business.
Mr Greer's knowledge of Central Office gave him special routes in to government, via friends who became MPs or political advisers or who went to work in the powerful Downing Street Policy Unit.
Mr Greer suited an age when ideology played a key role: he understood the system and he had sympathy with the changes Mrs Thatcher wanted to make, in particular the opening of the public sector to the private sector. Dozens of pieces of Thatcherite legislation meant business was brisk. Others, like Michael Forsyth whose company, Michael Forsyth Associates, specialised in political public relations, tapped into this seam. But Greer was always different, the most successful lobbyist of his generation.
Greer's personal contacts were unrivalled. When he celebrated the10th anniversary of his consultancy with a champagne reception at the National Portrait Gallery in 1992 the guest list included the Prime Minister. During the Tory leadership campaign Mr Greer offered Mr Major the use of his green Jaguar. Other close allies included the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Norman Lamont. As one rival put it: "He knew how the Tory party worked. He could pull strings."
Greer's cultivation of MPs, who in due course became ministers, had an exponential effect. If businessmen could see how senior his links were within the Conservative Party, they were more than likely to sign up themselves. As for the politicians, they were susceptible to peer influence in the heady days of Thatcherism which encouraged conspicuous consumption. As one lobbyist put it: "A lot of MPs will be checking their diaries to see how many times they were entertained."
What marked Mr Greer out most was his cash. "Most of the companies were making filthy amounts of money in the 1980s," said one lobbying source. "Fees were just extraordinary - pounds 10,000 a month for a parliamentary monitoring service which basically required one person to cut up bits of Hansard." Ian Greer Associates was privately owned and could therefore plough back its large profits into the business. There were no big other shareholders to answer to.
That politicians and their aides like to be taken to lunch is hardly new or exceptional. Mr Greer, however, went further. His parties were the most lavish and talked about. Jealous rumours circulated about a Greer Christmas gift list. We now know that this was the tip of the iceberg. Hampers from Harrods, furniture from Peter Jones and other goodies changed hands as did used notes in brown envelopes. Introduction fees for new business were claimed. Those who took them, according to one source, included Sir Peter Morrison, then an oil minister. In the high tide of the free- market years of Thatcherism there seemed to be precious few constraints.
How effective this web of contacts was for the businessmen who paid Greer large sums remains an open question. His client list read like a Who's Who of British blue-chip companies, including Boots, Cadbury Schweppes, Asda, Trafalgar House Developments and Mobil. Mr Greer was widely credited for securing for British Airways, which remains a client, the merger with British Caledonian against some Cabinet opposition in 1987. By contrast the Greer campaign on behalf of US Tobacco to prevent the banning of a cancer-causing product, Skoal Bandits, utterly failed. The company is reputed to have paid Mr Greer pounds 120,000 a year.
Links were predominantly to the Tory party, not only because Mr Greer knew it best but because most business opportunities were tied to its agenda. But Labour MPs, too, were tainted, including Doug Hoyle and Chris Smith, Shadow Secretary of State for Health. In the latter case, though Smith met Mr Greer on several occasions at receptions, contact was through Robbie MacDuff, a former Labour researcher, who campaigned for Mr Smith in the run-up to the election and arranged for a small Greer payment to the constituency fighting fund.
This was nothing like the involvement of Neil Hamilton, whose links with Mr Greer are now well chronicled. Not only was he willing to embark on vigorous lobbying on behalf of various causes, he was also very well connected with the Tory right. When Mr Hamilton managed to change the law this year, allowing his libel action against the Guardian to go ahead, he celebrated with a dinner party which included the former prime minister, Baroness Thatcher.
Ian Greer Associates was also a more personalised operation than its rivals. As a competitor put it, "When people placed contracts with the company they were buying Greer's contacts."
Staff were worked hard by Mr Greer, a bachelor workaholic who insists on early starts and bleeps employees late at night. The atmosphere inside the Westminster office (above which Mr Greer has a flat) was, according to one source who visited, highly individualistic. Employees were seated at identical desks, each with leather blotters and gold-coloured pen stands and male staff were encouraged to wear Hermes ties. The overall effect was "camp Dickensian".
But the pay was good and those who returned the boss's loyalty were treated well. Even among former members of staff, few are willing to speak out against him.
That it all came to grief may have been the result of dogged investigative reporting and the anger of the al-Fayeds. But what really caught up with Mr Greer was the changed mood in politics. In 1994 The Cook Report set up fake offices, posed as Russian businessmen and caught Mr Greer on camera describing how he operated. The programme was never broadcast but its contents were reported by the Guardian; in the1990s, such crude use of patronage looked strangely inappropriate. For years Mr Greer had, one source said last week, "tapped into the materialism of the 1980s to good effect. He was an offshoot of Thatcherism. Then all that had changed."
Up to a point. Last Thursday Conservative activists around the country received material relating to this week's conference in Bournemouth. The more observant will notice that the conference fringe guide is sponsored by Ian Greer Associates.
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