As lobbyists head southwards after the Tory Party conference in
Blackpool today, they will breathe a sigh of relief that the conference
marathon is over for another year.
But the lobbying industry is not out of the dock yet: what started as a
sleepy, mid-term conference season this year exploded midway - during
the the Labour Party conference - with more cash-for-access headlines,
this time emanating from the Scottish Parliament.
The Observer’s latest revelations certainly set the tone of public
affairs gossip in Bournemouth last week, much to the delight of those
agencies which have managed to elude the broadsheet’s muck-raking
tentacles so far.
But the splash did nothing to hamper lobbyists’ activities at the
conference - because the reality of the conference season is far removed
from the picture national newspapers paint of lobbyists pushing their
clients’ cases to MPs.
The fact is that lobbyists do not lobby at party conferences. Rather,
consultants spend their time arranging meetings for their clients with
relevant ministerial special advisers and members of government
taskforces and ensure MPs attend dinners and fringe parties hosted by
Lobbyists may not even attend these meetings, letting the clients speak
’The more sophisticated clients do it themselves, if they are well
plugged in,’ says BKSH UKhead Ian Lindsley.
And a consultant’s role at fringe parties is more akin to that of an
event organiser. Commenting on fringe debates organised by Ludgate
public affairs last week, deputy managing director Richard Elsen says:
’We do everything from checking people are still coming to picking them
up from the station.’ He adds: ’I’d be very surprised if anyone did any
Conference is certainly a contact-builder’s dream: at no other time in
the year is there such a concentration of lobbyists, journalists and
politicians in one building. For public affairs consultants, this means
laying the foundations for potential new business, gathering information
and monitoring what their rival lobbyists are up to.
Most of all, the Labour Party conference provides a chance for lobbyists
- most of whom have either worked for the Labour Party or moved across
several consultancies - to catch up with former colleagues. Something
which invariably happens over drinks at the hotel bar into the early
hours of the morning.
DIARY OF A VIRTUAL LOBBYIST
8.30am: It is Saul Spinwell’s second day in Bournemouth and his sleep
deprivation levels are already reaching the
matchstick-propping-eyelids-up stage. He didn’t leave the Daily
Chronicle’s party until 4am. And watching Peter Mandelson boogy to the
tunes of Boy George is enough to put anyone off their breakfast. But, as
the head of Blaglots public affairs, he feels a duty to rally his team
at the daily breakfast meeting in their hotel, ensuring that his minions
have got every fringe event covered for potential business leads.
11am: Saul himself heads for Bournemouth town centre - it’s not quite
Notting Hill, but he needs to avail himself of this year’s conference
must-have: a hands-free mobile phone. He saw his arch-rival Yank
Baricello with one yesterday and won’t be outdone, especially after Yank
had the effrontery to gatecrash his client’s lunch-time fringe
1pm: Saul is seen among the crowd milling around the British Utilities
plc stand in the conference centre waxing lyrical about the abilities of
his competition policy consultant to BU’s comms head. He then dashes off
to catch Our Glorious Leader’s speech - Alastair did a good job on that
3pm: On his way out of the hall, Saul manages to grab a couple of
sun-blushed tomato bruschettas from the Somerfield stand in lieu of
lunch - he hasn’t seen a fresh vegetable in what feels like days. He
wanders up the seafront to the Beachcliffe Hotel - the main conference
venue - dodging pro-hunt protestors, just in time for the British
Transport Association’s afternoon fringe bash. But what’s this?
Baricello is on the door, so Saul is forced to make a swift exit.
4.30pm: Back in the Beachcliffe lobby, Saul catches a glimpse of Norman
Nomates, newly appointed public affairs head at BigPharm, looking
Saul rescues him and has to put up with an hour’s tedious conversation
over a gin and tonic.
6pm: Nomates floats off, and Saul returns to his room to write a speech
for BigPharm’s chief executive. But he is strangely overcome by sleep
and, suddenly, it’s time for dinner at the Ocean Dragon - Bournemouth’s
attempt at gourmet Chinese food - with a group of journalists.
11pm: Saul battles for breathing space with a hoard of other lobbyists
at the Beachcliffe bar, which unusually is not taking credit cards this
year. By his seventh whisky, the bar swimsbefore him - is that Robin
Cook or a garden gnome someone dragged in from the hotel pond?
4am: Time to head back to the hotel - there are only a few hours to
spare before the next breakfast meeting and the beginning of another