The Liberal Democrats are offering lobbyists the opportunity to attend ‘exclusive dinners’ with Nick Clegg in return for an annual payment of £25,000.
PRWeek has learned that the party is setting up three new groups in a bid to raise more than £1m for the party coffers, including a ‘Leaders Forum’ restricted to an elite 50 individuals.
In confidential documents obtained by PRWeek, Clegg calls for wealthy figures to get involved – regardless of their political persuasion. ‘You don’t have to be a Liberal Democrat to take part,’ he says. ‘In today’s politics, all are welcome.’
The move immediately opens up Clegg’s party to damaging accusations of cash-for-access. The campaign group Spinwatch last night attacked the Lib Dems for allowing businesses ‘to buy listening time and potentially influence policy’.
The Lib Dems denied allegations of cash-for-access.
The three new groups were promoted to a select group of lobbyists at a recent launch event, also attended by Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander and Business Secretary Vince Cable.
Lobbyists present at the launch event on 28 March included Peter Bingle, the chairman of Bell Pottinger Public Affairs, which sponsored the event.
At the launch, Bingle gave a short address to attendees. He is said to have remarked: ‘Who would have thought 12 months ago that Bell Pottinger would be sponsoring a Liberal Democrat event? How times change.’
Also said to be in attendance on 28 March were representatives of the Tobacco Manufacturers' Association, the Tobacco Retailers' Alliance, the global oil and gas firm BG Group, as well as a number of lobbying consultancy bosses.
Membership of the most expensive group, the ‘Leaders Forum’, is restricted to 50 individuals paying £25,000 per year. Members are promised ‘a regular programme of exclusive dinners and debates on issues such as the economy, the environment, international affairs and the media’, according to the documents obtained by PRWeek.
One lobbyist at the launch event said it was made clear that the Leaders Forum was ‘the one where the real opportunities are, the one where you get to meet Nick’.
The Treasurer’s Forum has membership levels ranging from £2,000 to £7,500. In return, the party promises invitations to events including ‘panel debates with senior Liberal Democrats’ and a ‘chairman’s lunch’.
The Liberty Forum is the cheapest option, costing £1,000 annually. Members can attend the Lib Dem leader’s reception at the annual party conference and ‘regular social events’.
A document provided to lobbyists at the launch is entitled: ‘We’ve always been the face of change. Now we are the agents of change.’
Inside, Clegg writes: ‘Dear Friend… We are in Government for the first time in almost 70 years and are playing a central role in creating a fairer and more prosperous Britain. Over the coming years there will be many tough decisions for us to make as part of this new endeavour in coalition politics.
‘As we move forward, my colleagues and I want to listen to you and to continue this dialogue. This will be both with our own party supporters in the Liberty Forum and with leaders in business, entrepreneurs, cultural ambassadors and other like-minded individuals through both the Treasurer's and Leader's Forums.
‘You don’t have to be a Liberal Democrat to take part. In today’s politics, all are welcome.’
Lib Dem Treasurer Richard Duncalf writes: ‘Because of the challenges we all face, we want the UK’s most inspirational, successful and talented people to join the debate and be part of the solution. Of course, it’s also a great way for our supporters to engage with the party and be part of our campaigning.
‘Signing up is straightforward – just fill in and return the enclosed form. You can then join a variety of enjoyable and informative functions, but more importantly you will become part of an exclusive group of people who are having a real impact on the progression of the Liberal Democrats’.
The new Lib Dem groups, collectively known as The Forum Network, are thought to have been inspired by the Conservative Party’s donor clubs, set up while David Cameron was leader of the opposition.
Eight such groups are advertised on the Conservative Party’s website, including the £50,000 Leader’s Group, which allows donors to enjoy exclusive lunches and drinks receptions with Cameron.
Nevertheless the move is dangerous territory for Clegg, whose popularity in last year’s general election was built on the offer of ‘new politics’.
Tamasin Cave, spokeswoman for Spinwatch, said: ‘Offering access for cash is straight out of the Conservative Party handbook.
‘Encouraging businesses - whether it's bankers, private healthcare firms or media groups - to buy listening time with senior politicians, and potentially influence policy, is a funny way to clean up politics.
‘If he wants to restore trust, Nick Clegg must stop stalling and bring in regulation that would allow public scrutiny of who is lobbying whom, as promised by the coalition in May last year.’
A Lib Dem spokeswoman said the event on March 28 allowed senior Lib Dems ‘to engage and explain what we are doing in government and why to people from the charity and business sector’.
She added: ‘The Leader’s Forum has not yet convened and if it does will be exactly that; a forum for discussion and debate amongst leaders in various sectors and industries from around the world on issues which matter across the board.
‘Far from either event being about access or influence it is an opportunity for us as a party to discuss and explain what we are doing in government and to stimulate conversation and debate on various issues within group settings.'
On the issue of regulation of lobbyists, she said: ‘The Liberal Democrats have always championed transparency in and reform of party funding and lobbying regulations, something which we explicitly secured in the Coalition Agreement and are pursuing in Government.’
It is not known whether any lobbying firms have signed up to any of the new groups.
One senior lobbyist who attended the launch event said: ‘Certain consultancies will throw money at this kind of stuff… It’s attractive to lobbyists because you can sit down with key figures in the party and feel as though you have your feet under top table.’
But the source stressed that many lobbyists are increasingly wary of becoming embroiled in cash for access stories: ‘Many public affairs firms, if they do join up, will use the opportunity to send clients along on their behalf.’
Another lobbying boss was less enthusiastic about the prospect of spending £25,000 on dinner with the unpopular Clegg. ‘He should be paying me,’ joked the lobbyist.
[Pic Rex Features]