Profile: Never knowingly under-lunched - Peter Bingle - Chairman, Bell Pottinger Public Affairs

Head down to Gordon Ramsay's Petrus restaurant any lunchtime and chances are you'll find Peter Bingle tucking into some slow-cooked pork belly or seared tuna.

If he's not there, you may find the gregarious lobbyist at Gran Paradiso - a favourite haunt of Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Michael Portillo, where Bingle had his stag do. Or at Christopher's in Covent Garden, another preferred venue for the lobbying industry's big hitters.

What is for certain is that Bingle is a not a man who is accustomed to spending lunchtimes slumped over his desk with a sandwich and a copy of the FT.

'I have lunch once a day,' he asserts happily. Does that mean he goes to a restaurant every day? 'Over the past 20 years I've sustained the London restaurant industry and they're very grateful to me,' he jokes.

As the head of the UK's biggest and best-known lobbying firm, Bingle sees a good lunch with a client or a contact as a crucial part of the job, and he uses it to good effect.

'For every client, every person you deal with, you know the restaurant they like, the food they like, the wine they like, the ambience,' he says. 'That's part of what we do. If you can understand that people need to feel comfortable, at home and relaxed, that's how it works.'

It's an approach that 48-year-old Bingle, a former Tory councillor, has been perfecting since he first started out at the legendary public affairs outfit, Westminster Strategy, in the late 1980s. He has since risen steadily up the consultancy ladder to the point where he is now the living embodiment of Bell Pottinger's lobbying practice and one of owner Lord Bell's right-hand men.

Bingle has become increasingly vocal over the years. Fellow lobbyists point to his current spat with the Association of Professional Political Consultants (APPC), the industry-wide body that requires all lobbying firms to reveal their client lists.

Most agencies are signed up, but Bingle has repeatedly made it clear that Bell Pottinger has no intention of joining. Rivals say this is because Bell Pottinger does not want to expose its 'unsavoury' client list. Bell Pottinger rejects this. Either way, Bingle has been happy to ruffle feathers by predicting the demise of the APPC.

Edelman Europe vice-chair Michael Burrell, a former chair of the APPC, takes issue with Bingle over this - but there is clearly no vitriol.

'Obviously, Peter and I profoundly disagree on the APPC issue, and I don't think that's going to change,' says Burrell. 'However, I have fond memories of working with him at Westminster Strategy. He has outstanding personal skills and very good knowledge of political parties, and he makes our practice a livelier profession.'

Open Road CEO Graham McMillan is also a fan, although his enthusiasm has clearly been dampened by Bingle's outspoken attacks on an industry body that is trying to promote transparency and openness in lobbying.

'Peter is an extraordinary character,' says McMillan, who spent 12 years heading up Fishburn Hedges' public affairs practice. 'He has had a lot of success in the industry and achieved a lot for clients. He is a great networker and a legendary luncher, and he is also highly effective. But I'm afraid I part company with Bell Pottinger on the ethics of public affairs. The notion that somehow the APPC is going to disappear is as ridiculous as it is laughable.'

But Bingle will not be deterred from defending his agency, even if it courts controversy and puts him firmly in the minority. He even attempts to make a virtue out of his agency's refusal to join the APPC.

'I think we are perfectly right in saying openly that we agree with the vast majority of the code, but on the issue of client disclosure, we simply can't do it and we're quite open about it ... I think people actually respect the fact that we say what we believe.'

Bingle certainly gives the impression that he believes in his crusade against the APPC. But then he is not a man to do things by halves. When he was a Tory councillor in Wandsworth in the 1980s, he introduced so many speed bumps that they were known as 'Bingle bumps'. He was also known as an ardent Thatcherite, although he insists he's now fully signed up to David Cameron's new touchy-feely agenda. 'I'm a huge fan of David. I've known him since 1988. He was a Thatcherite then, so was I. He's changed, so have I. Politics has moved on.'

As benefits any successful lobbyist, Bingle now has friends on both sides of the political fence. He frequently attends the opera with Labour MP Nick Brown, once a close ally of Gordon Brown. Another Labour MP and one-time Brownite, Nigel Griffiths, is a good friend. Both are godfathers to Bingle's children.

Sitting in The Hospital, the exclusive private members club in Covent Garden, and sipping a glass of Sauvignon Blanc, Bingle appears well aware of his own profile and how he wants to promote "brand Bingle".

'Am I shy and quiet? No, I'm not. I have views, I'm an extrovert, I'm Sagittarian, I enjoy life. But I also want the best quality results and I want personal and professional success for me and my team.'

A good lunch is, of course, a vital part of the mix. In fact, it is so vital that Bingle has even been known to stretch to two lunches in a day if needed: 'Once by mistake, and on another occasion I couldn't get out of it.'

Bingle is almost sheepish about this admission, but he recovers quickly, determined to set his lunching in context. 'Part of our style is that we enjoy life,' he asserts boldly. 'But it only works if what you deliver day in, day out in terms of quality, is top-notch.'

CV
2007: Chairman, Bell Pottinger Public Affairs
2001: MD, Bell Pottinger Public Affairs
2000: MD, GPC
1999: MD, political unit, The Communications Group
1987: Director, Westminster Strategy
1982-1990: Councillor, Wandsworth Council

Turning Points

- What was your biggest career break?

During my last few months at LSE I was encouraged by my old friend Dick Tracey (before he became an MP) to apply for a job at the Independent Schools Information Service. When I arrived for the interview, Dick was part of the interviewing panel. Not surprisingly, I got the job!

- What advice would you give someone climbing the PR career ladder?

Work hard and learn from others. Never be afraid to ask for advice and never sacrifice a friendship for short-term commercial gain. This is a people business and I want the nicest people to do best. There are exceptions to this rule, but I am too nice to mention them.

- Who was your most notable mentor?

Over the past seven years I have had such fun. There are two special people who are responsible - Tim Bell and Piers Pottinger. Thanks to their encouragement and support, I have never felt more content or happy. If I could mention a third person it would be Patsy Baker (Bell Pottinger's new business director), who has helped me be sensible on more occasions than I can possibly remember.

- What do you prize most in new recruits?

I look for two qualities - being really talented and really nice. I want an office full of consultants who are great at what they do and great company socially.

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