Lobbying plans will not save PM from scandal

David Cameron's pronouncement that lobbying was the 'next big scandal waiting to happen' has proved to be an inconvenient sound bite once in Government.

Alec Mattinson: 'For Cameron not to have  enquired about his chief election  strategist’s business interests seems careless at best.'
Alec Mattinson: 'For Cameron not to have enquired about his chief election strategist’s business interests seems careless at best.'

His soothsaying came back to bite him again this week when Conservative election supremo Lynton Crosby’s ties to the tobacco industry were exposed just as the Government booted plain cigarette packaging into the long grass.

The long grass has become a rather crowded patch of lawn recently – perhaps not coincidently since Crosby urged the Tories to ‘get the barnacles off the boat’ and ditch non-core policies and had hidden lobbying reform before it was hastily dusted off last month.

The Government’s repurposed plans for a statutory lobbying register will, we are promised, be unveiled this week. But Cameron’s pledge to fight ‘crony capitalism’ and mend ‘broken politics’ has been further undermined by Crosby.

The protestations that Crosby and his consultancy Crosby Textor did not actively lobby Cameron on behalf of Philip Morris – and anyway he works for the Tories, not the Government – are less than satisfactory. If Crosby Textor had absolutely no impact on the policy conversation around plain packaging, one wonders what Philip Morris was paying it for.

For Cameron not to have enquired about his chief election strategist’s business interests seems careless at best. Given his similar incuriosity around his former comms chief Andy Coulson’s background, he will surely now struggle to regain any credibility as a genuine reforming force.

The lobbying register has been brought back in from the cold precisely for this reason. The Government must be seen to be doing something.

But what is it going to achieve? The Crosby story only arose because Crosby Textor had rebuffed advances to sign up to existing public affairs bodies.

APPC chairman Michael Burrell told Parliament last week that up to 95 per cent of eligible consultancies have signed up to the organisation and list their clients on the APPC register.

So a lot of effort is being spent by the Government just to drag the remaining five per cent up to speed.

The plans are yet to be fully articulated, but most are expecting a sticking plaster solution that targets just public affairs consultancies and not in-house teams or the myriad of other organisations with a voice in policy debates.

Transparency is coming to the public affairs industry and it will be welcomed by the vast majority. But the fight is only just starting to ensure the industry is not unfairly singled out simply because ‘something must be done’.

alec.mattinson@haymarket.com

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