Mr. Mercer’s reported and alleged willingness to lobby for undemocratic but sunny Fiji had a couldn’t-make-it-up quality.
Bobbing between the moats and the duck islands of the 2009 expenses crisis were a few wiser heads, who grasped that the real threat to democracy was less the taxpayer footing silly symbols of opulence, rather than the mixing of money and influence. Foremost among them was David Cameron. In powerful pre-election words, he warned lobbying was the “next big scandal waiting to happen”. His promise to “fix broken politics” carried over into the coalition agreement, with pledges for a statutory lobbying register and a right to recall wayward MPs.
Yesterday, as Patrick Mercer resigned the Conservative whip after being allegedly caught out by a BBC/Telegraph lobbying sting, both the register and the right to recall are virtually forgotten. Neither proposal would have dealt with every aspect of the emerging scandal. But had the fake agency involved been genuine, a statutory register would at least have ensured that the clients who sought to buy influence would have been published for all to see. Yet ever since publishing an anaemic green paper that pleased nobody in January 2012, the government has been indulging in extended reflection. It now wants even more thinking time before developing plans “in due course”. With nothing in the Queen’s speech, then – at any rate, until yesterday – the chances of legislating in this parliament were rapidly slipping away.
The right to recall proposal, still half-pushed by Nick Clegg, would bear even more directly on the current situation. Whatever Mr Mercer’s personal strengths and his perhaps more considerable weaknesses, most of the citizens of Newark did not elect him to serve them as Mr Mercer, but instead to serve them as Conservative MP. This is a job, however, that both the Tory leadership and Mr Mercer have now agreed that he is no longer qualified for – hence the surrendering of the whip. Newark’s citizens are surely entitled to ask why their compromised MP is nonetheless deemed to be capable of representing them as an independent for the next two years – and to demand a byelection. But the watered-down recall provision the government eventually floated was so weak it probably wouldn’t have applied in this case; it certainly will not do so now because it has never been enacted.
Mr Mercer’s reported and alleged willingness to lobby for undemocratic but sunny Fiji had a couldn’t-make-it-up quality, but it is not unique. Since 2010 we’ve heard Blairite ex-ministers offering themselves as “taxis for hire”, and Bell Pottinger staffers brag of privileged access to George Osborne and Mr Cameron. The coalition may have forgotten the issue, but lobbying is no longer the next scandal waiting to happen – it is a scandal already upon us.