Goodbye (for now)… and thanks for the snail ice cream

I should probably make it clear (in case it wasn’t already) that since leaving PRWeek I’ve now wound down this blog.

However, I shall leave the archives open and I may even do the occasional blog post. But then again I might not.

For now, I shall leave a list of the most searched for terms that led users to this blog since its conception in May 2009.

Most randomly, just outside the top ten with 26 searches was “snall ice cream”  – tasty!

TOP TEN SEARCH TERMS LEADING TO PUBLICAFFAIRSCENTRAL.COM

1 public affairs central – 494

2 ameet gill – 406

3 peter bingle – 202

4 luke chauveau -166

5 george bridges -87

6 david singleton -84

7 how to become a tobacco lobbyist -73

8 james gurling – 53

9 total politics top 100 – 47

10 lobbyists – 42

Bell Pottinger lobbying expose: how bad is it this time?

It is an iron law of modern politics that every six months a ‘lobbying scandal’ will break in to the news cycle.

Often, no real lobbyists are involved. Instead the starring role is taken by a dodgy politician (Stephen ‘cab for hire’ Byers) or a shadowy political adviser (Adam Werrity).

The story on the front page of tomorrow’s Independent is different. A trio of real lobbyists, from Bell Pottinger, have been secretly filmed talking up their connections to David Cameron and his inner circle.

Unfortunately for Cameron, the killer quote is provided by a former colleague of the PM’s. Bell Pottinger Public Affairs MD Tim Collins is reported saying:

‘I’ve been working with people like David Cameron, Steve Hilton, George Osborne for 20 years plus…I know all these people. There is not a problem in getting the messages through to them.’

I am immediately reminded of the infamous Derk Draper quote:

‘There are 17 people who count. And to say I am intimate with every one of them is the understatement of the century.’

The Independent’s story is potentially very damaging for both Cameron and the lobbying industry.

The problem is that it is entirely plausible that Collins could have this kind of hotline to Number 10.

Collins is one of the industry’s more courteous, intelligent and effective operators.  A former MP, he is also well connected in Tory circles. The Bell Pottinger website notes that he ‘worked with David himself in the Conservative Research Department as long ago as 1988’ and ‘served on the Conservative front-bench alongside almost all of the current conservative members of the Cabinet’.

Yet it is equally plausible that this is merely loose talk from lobbyists keen to secure a lucrative contract. For many in the industry, it is par for the course. One lobbyist tells me: ‘Most of what he [Collins] was “caught” saying is the kind of stuff firms put openly in their promo material!’

The key question is whether the government has been unduly influenced by lobbyists. Perhaps Team Cameron is impervious to all such lobbying (they would like us think so!). Perhaps Dave, Steve and George wouldn’t be able to pick these lobbyists out of a line up (I doubt that’s true, but it could well be the line coming out of Downing Street for the next few hours). Perhaps Bell Pottinger have valid arguments to put on the table and crucial information to feed in to the system.

Bell Pottinger owner Lord Bell has attacked the reporters behind this sting for ‘unethical, underhand deception to manufacture a story where none exists’.

Whether this is ‘the next big lobbying scandal’ should become clear in the next few hours.

Either way, the story is likely to influence the forthcoming lobbying register that the coalition is working up (the consultation paper is due any day now). If the government was planning to go easy on lobbyists, then expect that approach to be shelved.

The likelihood is that many lobbyists who wouldn’t dream of speaking in this manner will be now penalised as part of a new ‘lobbying crackdown’.

11PM UPDATE The full story is here

In defence of lobbying… by top lobbyists

The Observer said that the scandal that killed Liam Fox is ‘at heart, a scandal about lobbying’.

The Independent complained that ‘lobbying has become part of the warp and woof of Britain’s modern political culture’.

And the Guardian upped the pressure for a lobbying register with a timely analysis of who has been lobbying ministers.

But the UK’s lobbyists have been hitting back, both on the airwaves and online.

Here are four of the best pieces penned by UK public affairs professionals in recent days:

On ConservativeHome, Lionel Zetter says Adam Werrity may have been lobbying, but was ‘not a lobbyist in the accepted sense of the term’. He argues that lobbying ‘helps to produce better policy and better legislation’ as it ‘makes sure that all interests are represented’.

On the Huffington Post, Iain Anderson notes that, once again, no lobbyists were involved in the latest lobbying scandal. With a lobbying register back on the agenda, the key is that ‘it applies equally to everyone who lobbies’.

On Total Politics, Gavin Devine says a lobbying register would be good news for most public affairs professionals as it would help weed out the ‘amateurs who are almost always the cause of lobbying scandals’.

And on his own site, Stuart Bruce is not surprised that ministers are frequently being lobbied by business, but thinks ‘the balance of meetings for some departments does look rather alarming’.

Revealed: who was really behind Tony Blair ‘blood on your hands’ bombshell

When I interviewed lobby journo-turned PR man Jonathan Oliver recently, I pressed the former political hack on his controversial question to Tony Blair following the suicide of David Kelly.

In 2003, working for the Mail on Sunday, Oliver abandoned protocol by  sticking his hand up at the end of a Tokyo press conference and asking. ‘Have you got blood on your hands, Prime Minister? Are you going to resign over this?’

The clip of a shocked and speechless Blair was picked up by grateful TV news bulletins. Oliver instantly became a hate figure for Alastair Campbell and legions of uber-loyal Blairites.

Oliver, who hasn’t spoken publicly about the incident before, told me: ‘The Mail on Sunday was very keen that Tony Blair, who was then travelling, was put on the spot. I was told by the editor that the normal ethics or rules of engagement of the parliamentary lobby no longer applied and I had to do whatever it took.’

That much is reported here. What I didn’t manage to squeeze in to the profile was the source of the ‘blood on your hands’ phrase.

So here goes.

Oliver also told me: ‘The actual form of words I ended up using actually came out of a conversation with Nick Robinson…

‘I said to him look something like, “Nick I’ve got to say something that really puts Tony on the spot, what do you think I should ask?”

‘He said, half in jest, “Why don’t you ask him if he’s got blood on his hands?” I said: “Ok that’s pithy.”

‘I then used those words and there was this extraordinary moment where Tony Blair stared at me while I stood up at this press conference for what felt like an age.’

You read it here first. Another person for Alastair Campbell to call a w****r…

The next Tory election campaign chief?

Following his success on the No2AV campaign earlier this year, a few Tory types have suggested that Matthew Elliott could be the man to run the Conservative Party’s next general election campaign.

Admittedly, the Taxpayers’ Alliance boss may be more at home in CCHQ once Dave moves on and Boris beats George to the top job.

Regardless, in a wide ranging interview with Elliott recently I asked him whether would be interested in the role. As I note in this resulting profile piece, he emphatically did not rule it out.

But here’s what he said in full:

‘I enjoyed No2AV and I really doing politics more at the centre, slightly more high profile and where you actually have a final result at the end in the ballot box. It’s definitely whetted my appetite for more campaigning like that.

‘I wouldn’t rule any job like that, out but I think that one thing you see from lots of prime ministers – Tony Blair had Anji Hunter, Alastair Campbell, Jonathan Powell and Peter Mandelson in his inner team right from the early nineties to the end. David Cameron has his team and my admiration for people like Steven Gilbert at CCHQ is immense.

‘One thing that really struck me during the campaign was it’s quite easy to sit on the outside of the party machine and say this should be done better or that was a gaffe or why on earth didn’t they do that.

‘But seeing the sheer intensity working on a campaign on a day to day basis when you’ve got to make a thousand decisions every day, my respect for the CCHQ machine as operated by Steven Gilbert good is immense. I think it would be difficult to find someone as good as he is at running it.’

Did you get that, Boris?

Lobbying firm desperately seeks Tory

Speak to any on-message lobbyist and they’ll tell you that, these days, there is much more to public affairs than who has the best political contact book.

Take Malcolm Gooderham, the former press secretary to Michael Portillo who now runs lobbying firm TLG. He told me: ‘There are a bunch of eighties throwbacks in the industry who think it’s all about contacts. Actually there’s a new school that is going to show them it’s actually not about who you know, but what you know.’

Or Labour man John Lehal, founder of Insight Public Affairs. He has assured me that: ‘The industry has changed a lot…You don’t need to be going to Westminster and Whitehall and having quiet chats with people, or spending hours lunching your friends from Parliament or government departments. It is far more about business strategy.’

Alas, it seems someone neglected tell the lobbying firm behind this job ad.

The un-named consultancy (who could it be?) has instructed recruitment agency The Foundry to reel in a Tory to fill a £50,000 senior consultant role. The poorly-written ad – complete with bogus capital letters – states:

‘Got Tory creds?…This Corporate and Public Affairs consultancy has both healthcare, financial services and property as major constituents in its business.  Its London office is looking for a Senior Consultant with insight into the working of Whitehall and Westminster from the Tory perspective.’

Of course, a Labour-heavy contacts book is currently about as much use in lobbying as a chocolate tea pot. And it’s not the first time in recent years that a consultancy has gone out on a limb to shore up its Tory credentials.

Nevertheless it’s still unusual to see a lobbying firm being so brazen about its desperate need for a Tory, even anonymously.

So what exactly does the £50,000 post entail?

Specific responsibilities include telling potential clients how close you are to Dave and pestering old CCHQ mates who are now in government to go out for expensive dinners with senior figures from healthcare, financial services and property.

Possibly.

Damian McBride shows familiar fighting spirit in new job

More than two years after his high-profile departure from Downing Street, Damian McBride is back in action.

Gordon Brown’s former media handler was once described by The Sun as ‘bred to kill’.  Just weeks ago he started at Cafod, a charity which works to save lives in more than 40 countries.

I gave McBride a bell this week to find out how he was dealing with the recent right-wing backlash against overseas aid spending.

He told me he was ‘getting stuck in’ and taking a ‘robust’ approach to dealing with the ‘myths’ put out by opponents.

Some things never change…

Yet while McBride’s enthusiasm for a scrap didn’t always endear him to colleagues in the Labour Party or in Downing Street (especially if they were on the recieving end), it may be just the tonic that development charities need right now.

Aid lobbyists face the likes of Conservative MP Philip Davies who has described Britain as a ‘soft touch’ and said we must be ‘stark raving mad’ to give high sums to countries such as India.

Davies and his ilk are encouraged by the Daily Mail which recently claimed that the UK doles out ‘more aid than any other country’ – a headline which the fullfact.org blog said ‘oversteps the remit of the facts’.

With development charities pitted against the combined forces of the Daily Mail and the right wing of the Conservative Party, McBride’s ‘robust’ approach may be exactly what is needed.

Perhaps the charity world should be thankful McBride has not lost too much of his fighting spirit.

* OECD figures show that while the UK is the most generous G8 economy in international aid relative to Gross National Income (GNI), it does not give the most aid of any country in the world – neither relative to GNI or in absolute terms.