The Patrick Mercer affair is just one small symptom of a much bigger and insidious subversion of democracy
Whenever another one of them is caught, there is a temptation to sigh: will they never learn? Two decades have passed since the original cash-for-questions affair and one thing that some MPs have still not absorbed is this: if someone claiming to represent a dodgy cause or an unsavoury regime invites an honourable member to trouser lots of dosh and then asks them to lobby on their behalf in Parliament, then there is a fairly high probability that this gift horse is an undercover reporter conducting a sting operation.
Patrick Mercer, the latest in the catalogue of MPs who have disgraced themselves, was never the brightest light bulb in the parliamentary chandelier. The termination of his career will be mourned by few and positively celebrated by David Cameron, who had a reciprocated loathing for an internal enemy who once described the Tory leader as a “despicable creature”. Yet for the prime minister, any joy at the demise of a foe ought to be mingled with anxiety. For once again, our attention is drawn back to the murky world of lobbying and this government’s failure to fulfil its promises to bring order to a huge industry that too often distorts and subverts democratic decision-making.
Back in his opposition days, Mr Cameron made a well-argued speech in which he acknowledged that there was a “far too cosy relationship between politics, government, business and money” and forecast that “secret corporate lobbying” was “the next big scandal waiting to happen”. He knew of what he spoke. The one period of his working life when he was not in politics was spent as a lobbyist for a television company. “We all know how it works,” he said in that speech. Well, he certainly did. “The lunches, the hospitality, the quiet word in your ear, the ex-ministers and ex-advisers for hire, helping big business get its way.”
From health policy to schools, from transport to planning laws, from defence contracts to energy, swarms of lobbyists representing domestic or foreign interests are daily endeavouring to persuade MPs, ministers and officials to tilt laws and decisions in ways that will favour their paymasters. More than 100 professional lobbyists or advocates for interest groups and businesses have privileged access to legislators, thanks to being given parliamentary passes by members of the House of Lords. As the Guardian recently reported, they include lobbyists working with the casino industry, consultants to arms firms, senior trade union officials and political consultants to overseas governments and their proxies.
The Mercer affair has shone a light on another route used by vested interests to worm their way into the legislature. The MP for Newark allegedly signed a £24,000 a year contract to act as a “consultant” and then asked parliamentary questions, tabled a motion and set up an all-party group to promote the cause of the dictatorial regime in Fiji. Many of these all-party groups are harmless – ways for like-minded MPs to pursue a shared concern. But they have also increasingly become a tool for lobbyists who use them to fund events and trips that promote the interests of their clients. Several of the all-party groups are explicitly or indirectly sponsored by foreign governments. All this is within parliament’s rules. Mr Mercer appears to have had to resign not because he took the cash, but because he failed to declare all of it.
There are those who contend that this is nothing to get too excited about. If lobbyists rip off anyone, they say, it is most frequently their clients who gullibly pay over-large sums to often little effect. I think that’s too complacent. Closely examine many of the bad policy decisions of recent years and you will often find lobbying somewhere in the mix. The multiple City scandals were facilitated by the great success of the banking lobby in persuading ministers that “light-touch regulation” was the way to go. The horsemeat scandal was in part the result of pressure brought by the supermarkets for less stringent regulation of food standards.
Some of the dirty backwash has lapped right up to David Cameron’s front door. He has lost a cabinet minister to a lobbying scandal. Liam Fox resigned as defence secretary when it was revealed that Adam Werrity, his best man, former flatmate and self-styled “adviser”, was funded by companies with a commercial interest in defence-related businesses. We have had plenty of examples of ministerial offices working in close and clandestine collusion with lobbyists. That is the inevitable result of the constant flow of personnel between government and the firms that seek to influence government. Advisers become lobbyists and lobbyists become advisers. There is a very good example of that within Number 10 itself. Lynton Crosby, the prime minister’s election strategist, is the head of a lobbying firm.
Jeremy Hunt came close to losing his place in cabinet when it was revealed that the then culture secretary had become so intimate with the chief lobbyist for News International that they exchanged texts addressing each other as “daddy”. Peter Cruddas was forced to resign as Tory party co-treasurer as the result of another investigative sting that recorded him offering access to the prime minister and the chancellor in exchange for party donations of up to £250,000.
Labour has cried foul, but has not been able to do so with much traction because its own time in power was disfigured by scandals of a similar nature. In the dying months of the last government, three ex-cabinet ministers were filmed offering their services for money, one describing himself as “a cab for hire”.
I’ll give this to Stephen Byers, the author of that remark – he was at least being frank about how it works. Probably the most potent form is the buying up of ex-ministers and former officials. Dave Hartnett, the former head of HMRC, is sailing into a consultancy job at Deloitte, one of the accountancy giants that tutor firms such as Starbucks about how to avoid paying taxes. That is a particularly outrageous example of what the Americans call “revolving door syndrome”, but it is hardly unique. Moving into a lucrative role as a consultant, adviser or director in the private sector is now programmed into the career planning of many senior civil servants, diplomats and politicians. The Financial Times reported last week that more than a dozen former ministers and civil servants have moved from posts in government to jobs with the “big four” accountancy firms in the past decade. A Russian conglomerate has just recruited Peter Mandelson, though he will never command the fees that can be pulled in by his friend Tony Blair, who receives around £2m a year to advise the American bank JP Morgan Chase. The politicians may like to claim that they are being hired for their brilliant brains. But what surely most interests their paymasters is buying up their inside knowledge of how to influence governments and their ability to get other politicians to answer their calls.
The dangers posed are obvious. The starkest of them – the paying of direct cash bribes to purchase changes to government policy – seems to be mercifully rare in Britain. What worries me more is the subtler, hidden ways in which the octopus wraps its tentacles around decision-making. There is a very big advantage to knowing how things work within government and how to sway the people in charge. This grants a privileged influence over policy formulation and law-making to those who can afford to buy it. And those who can afford to buy it are mainly large corporations or foreign governments. I fear, too, that this market in retired public servants has a distorting effect on their conduct while they are in government posts. How much are they influenced in their approach to big interests today by the thought that they might be looking for a payday from them tomorrow?
The pungent smell given off by the whole business also feeds public cynicism about how government works that swells voter alienation, anger and disengagement.
Legislation on this opaque nexus between government and money was promised in the original coalition agreement between the Tories and the Lib Dems and again in their midterm review. Yet nothing has been delivered and time is running out in this parliament to get anything done.
What was pledged was a statutory register of lobbyists and more transparency about their interactions with ministers. As the Commons public administration select committee argued, when it proposed a statutory register in a comprehensive report published four years ago: “There is a public interest in knowing who is lobbying whom about what.”
That would help, though we shouldn’t be under any illusions that this would be a total panacea. You can’t legislate against the most insidious form of lobbying, which works through private networks of party donors, chums and ex-ministers: “the quiet word in your ear” that Mr Cameron once spoke about. To expose that, we will continue to rely on the resourcefulness of investigative journalists. More power to their undercover elbows.