The fags and booze crackdown that wasn't: or why we need a register of lobbyists

Why can’t we see how much is being spent by private healthcare companies to push for NHS reform, why can’t we see which companies thought the Work Programme was a good idea?

Senior Tories are determined to axe the “Lib Dem hobbyhorse” of a statutory register of lobbyists . . . one Tory source said the proposal was effectively dead as ministers focused on “big issues” instead of devoting resources to an idea cherished only by the Liberal Democrats.

“We need to tackle the issues that the country cares about such as immigration, benefits and the economy,” he said. “It is ironic that Nick Clegg is gunning for the lobbying industry when he was a lobbyist once upon a time.”
 
Now, about this “next big scandal waiting to happen”. Bluntly, one has to wonder at what point our Prime Minister will deem said scandal to have happened. The Queen’s Speech of 2013 was most notable not for what was in it, but for what wasn’t. 
 
For a start, lobbying reform wasn't there. But that wasn't the thing which caused a stink: that was the issue of plain cigarette packaging. It seems a pretty obvious policy to adopt. Rightly, the government is keen to make smoking a frowned-upon, niche activity on a par with watching hentai porn or Morris dancing, and having upped taxes and hidden the packets in supermarkets, this seemed the next logical step. I’m certainly OK with it, and I speak as an enthusiastic social smoker. (I only smoke when I'm out drinking. And quite often when I'm not. Anyway.)
 
Maybe you don't like the idea, but that's not the point. The point is that it was suddenly binned. Why? Because Ukip had been selling itself as the pro-smoking, or if you prefer, pro-lung cancer party? Or was it more to do with lobbying from the tobacco industry? Department of Health minutes show that lobbyists had met government officials in January and February and told them that the industry would have to source its packaging from abroad, resulting in job losses. Other arguments included the contention that it would boost the trade in illicit cigarettes - although commercial sensitivity laws mean we can’t actually see the workings behind this.

Fine. The tobacco lobbyists have as much of a right to put forward their view as anyone else. (For more on this, Thank You For Smoking is a brilliant film, by the way). But then the links between the Prime Minister’s aide, Lynton Crosby, and tobacco firms were exposed - and challenged by a Tory MP, no less. The PM’s spokesman said Crosby had no impact on the decision, but don’t the quotes in that FT story sound rather like his lines in this Mirror piece about “getting the barnacles off the boat”? This, incidentally, is the old lie that we should forget about this - and lobbying reform itself, and gay marriage for that matter - because the Government’s like me trying to walk and send a message on its phone: it can't try to do too many things at once or it'll end up inadvertently sending its mother a sex text before walking into a lamppost.

And of course, it wasn’t just tobacco packaging that was conspicuous by its absence. The Government seemed all excited about a minimum unit price for alcohol a while back - look, it even made a commitment on it - but that’s died a death too. So which argument won the day? Of course there’s a debate to be had about punishing responsible drinkers, but how much weight did threats from the alcohol industry to pull out of the government’s Public Health Responsibility Deal carry? Should we take Jeremy Hunt’s word that it’s been delayed solely due to a legal dispute in Scotland?

Here’s the uncomfortable truth about lobbyists. We need them. Many MPs will freely admit that they couldn’t do their jobs without the information they provide. They highlight the concerns of charities, businesses and individuals who otherwise wouldn’t be heard. But the problem is that without a statutory register, a compulsory code of conduct, and an obligation on all politicians and civil servants to declare their meetings, the industry simply comes across as sordid. Countless Government decisions appear suspicious, when they may very well not be.

Let’s stick with the tobacco industry. Last year we learned that JapanTobacco International has wined and dined 21 MPs, of whom 19 were Conservative. Crispin Blunt had gone to see England play India (£694), and Philip Hammond and his wife had been taken to Chelsea Flower Show (£1,132.80). This raises a serious question, quite apart from who in God’s name would pay over a grand to look at some plants. Given the vast sums of money being splurged on influencing the views of our elected leaders, why aren’t we kicking up a bigger stink about transparency? Why can’t we see how much is being spent by private healthcare companies to push for NHS reform, why can’t we see which companies thought the Work Programme was a good idea?

The Alliance for Lobbying Transparency has made a couple of very good points on this. First, this isn’t a left/right wing issue. Look at how lobbyists in favour of HS2 have worked to “shit up” opponents of the scheme - many of them Conservative. And secondly, the Government’s plans, as they currently stand, are inadequate.

We have to tackle this issue, for the good of our democracy. Lynton Crosby would presumably tell you all this is a distraction from the big issues. But then Lynton Crosby would say that, wouldn’t he? One can only hope that’s a response echoed by our ministers. And we shouldn't just have to hope.

 

A smoker. Photo: Getty

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

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Ken Clarke: Theresa May has “no idea” what to do about Brexit

According to the former Chancellor, “nobody in the government has the first idea of what they’re going to do next”.

Has Ken Clarke lost the greatest political battle of his career? He doesn’t think so. With his shoes off, he pads around his Westminster office in a striped shirt, bottle-green cords and spotty socks. Parliament’s most persistent Europhile seems relaxed. He laughs at the pervasive phrase that has issued from Downing Street since Theresa May became Prime Minister: “Brexit means Brexit.”

“A very simple phrase, but it didn’t mean anything,” he says. His blue eyes, still boyish at 76, twinkle. “It’s a brilliant reply! I thought it was rather witty. It took a day or two before people realised it didn’t actually answer the question.”

A former chancellor of the Exchequer, Clarke has served in three Conservative cabinets. His support for the European Union is well known. He has represented the seat of Rushcliffe in Nottinghamshire for 46 years, and his commitment to the European project has never wavered over the decades. It has survived every Tory civil war and even his three failed attempts to be elected Tory leader, standing on a pro-Europe platform, in 1997, 2001 and 2005.

“My political career looks as though it will coincide with Britain’s membership of the EU,” Clarke says, lowering himself into an armchair that overlooks the Thames. There are model cars perched along the windowsill – a hint of his love of motor racing.

Clarke won’t be based here, in this poky rooftop room in Portcullis House, Westminster, much longer. He has decided to step down at the next election, when he will be nearly 80. “I began by campaigning [in the 1960s] in support of Harold Macmillan’s application to enter [the EU], and I shall retire at the next election, when Britain will be on the point of leaving,” he says grimly.

Clarke supports Theresa May, having worked with her in cabinet for four years. But his allegiance was somewhat undermined when he was recorded describing her as a “bloody difficult woman” during this year’s leadership contest. He is openly critical of her regime, dismissing it as a “government with no policies”.

For a senior politician with a big reputation, Clarke is light-hearted in person – his face is usually scrunched up in merriment beneath his floppy hair. A number of times during our discussion, he says that he is trying to avoid getting “into trouble”. A painting of a stern Churchill and multiple illustrations of Gladstone look down at him from his walls as he proceeds to do just that.

“Nobody in the government has the first idea of what they’re going to do next on the Brexit front,” he says. He has a warning for his former cabinet colleagues: “Serious uncertainty in your trading and political relationships with the rest of the world is dangerous if you allow it to persist.”

Clarke has seen some of the Tories’ bitterest feuds of the past at first hand, and he is concerned about party unity again. “Whatever is negotiated will be denounced by the ultra-Eurosceptics as a betrayal,” he says. “Theresa May has had the misfortune of taking over at the most impossible time. She faces an appalling problem of trying to get these ‘Three Brexiteers’ [Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox] to agree with each other, and putting together a coherent policy which a united cabinet can present to a waiting Parliament and public. Because nobody has the foggiest notion of what they want us to do.”

Clarke reserves his fiercest anger for these high-profile Brexiteers, lamenting: “People like Johnson and [Michael] Gove gave respectability to [Nigel] Farage’s arguments that immigration was somehow a great peril caused by the EU.”

During the referendum campaign, Clarke made headlines by describing Boris Johnson as “a nicer version of Donald Trump”, but today he seems more concerned about David Cameron. He has harsh words for his friend the former prime minister, calling the pledge to hold the referendum “a catastrophic decision”. “He will go down in history as the man who made the mistake of taking us out of the European Union, by mistake,” he says.

Clarke left the government in Cameron’s 2014 cabinet reshuffle – which came to be known as a “purge” of liberal Conservatives – and swapped his role as a minister without portfolio for life on the back benches. From there, he says, he will vote against the result of the referendum, which he dismisses as a “bizarre protest vote”.

“The idea that I’m suddenly going to change my lifelong opinions about the national interest and regard myself as instructed to vote in parliament on the basis of an opinion poll is laughable,” he growls. “My constituents voted Remain. I trust nobody will seriously suggest that I should vote in favour of leaving the European Union. I think it’s going to do serious damage.”

But No 10 has hinted that MPs won’t be given a say. “I do think parliament sooner or later is going to have to debate this,” Clarke insists. “In the normal way, holding the government to account for any policy the government produces . . . The idea that parliament’s going to have no say in this, and it’s all to be left to ministers, I would regard as appalling.”

Clarke has been characterised as a Tory “wet” since his days as one of the more liberal members of Margaret Thatcher’s government. It is thought that the former prime minister had a soft spot for his robust manner but viewed his left-wing leanings and pro-European passion with suspicion. He is one of parliament’s most enduring One-Nation Conservatives. Yet, with the Brexit vote, it feels as though his centrist strand of Tory politics is disappearing.

“I don’t think that’s extinct,” Clarke says. “The Conservative Party is certainly not doomed to go to the right.”

He does, however, see the rise of populism in the West as a warning. “I don’t want us to go lurching to the right,” he says. “There is a tendency for traditional parties to polarise, and for the right-wing one to go ever more to the right, and the left-wing one to go ever more to the left . . . It would be a catastrophe if that were to happen.”

Clarke’s dream of keeping the UK in Europe may be over, but he won’t be quiet while he feels that his party’s future is under threat. “Don’t get me into too much trouble,” he pleads, widening his eyes in a show of innocence, as he returns to his desk to finish his work. 

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories