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

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