Public Affairs: Watson quits Cabinet Office

Watson's departure expected to stymie lobbying overhaul.

The Government is expected to place lobbying reform on the backburner following Cabinet Office minister Tom Watson's decision to stand down last Friday.

Watson had been overseeing the Government's response to the recent public administration select committee (PASC) report calling for greater transparency in lobbying. As PRWeek went to press, Watson's replacement had not been announced.

Watson's departure from the Cabinet Office comes hot on the heels of that of Lee O'Rourke, the civil servant who was leading the Government's response to the select committee. O'Rourke is understood to have moved to another Whitehall department.

Senior members of the Association of Professional Political Correspondents (APPC) were this week frantically attempting to line up meetings with the relevant Cabinet Office contacts. The APPC - along with the CIPR and PRCA - is keen to get government support for its plans to establish a single umbrella group for all lobbyists, rather than see the Government introduce statutory regulation.

One senior APPC source described Watson's departure as 'unfortunate, given the groundwork we've put in'.

Opponents of the APPC's plans claimed lobbying reform was now unlikely to happen in this Parliament. Bell Pottinger Public Affairs chair Peter Bingle said: 'Tom's departure means that in the short term there is no momentum within HMG to do anything about lobbying. The focus now needs to be on the Tories.'

DLA Piper director Eben Black agreed: 'I don't think there's any political will to do it now.'

Others did not rule out some action on lobbying, but said the Government's response to the select committee would inevitably be delayed. The respected lobbyist and former president of the CIPR Lionel Zetter said: 'It could now be delayed by a week, a month, or until the eve of the summer recess, but it won't go away.'

Zetter noted that the Conservatives were keeping up the pressure with a recent pledge ahead of last week's European elections. At leader David Cameron's request, all Tory MEPs have agreed to 'publish online details of all meetings with lobbyists and interest groups' - and not to accept gifts from lobbyists or interest groups.

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