Lobbyists caught on tape claiming to have influence over the Prime Minister

Senior figures at Bell Pottinger secretly recorded boasting of links to senior Conservatives.

Senior figures at Bell Pottinger, a leading lobbying company, have been secretly taped claiming that they can influence David Cameron and other senior cabinet ministers.

An investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalists, published by the Independent today, taped senior executives at the public affairs firm saying that they had access to the Prime Minister, William Hague and George Osborne, as well as Steve Hilton, Cameron's policy chief, and Ed Llewellyn, the Downing Street chief of staff.

On the recording, Tim Collins, the managing director of Bell Pottinger said he had worked with Cameron and Osborne in the Conservative Party's research department, and that Llewllyn has worked under him at Conservative Central Office:

I've been working with people like Steve Hilton, David Cameron, George Osborne for 20 years-plus. There is not a problem getting the messages through.

Collins does, indeed, have strong ties to the Conservative Party. He was an MP for eight years, and a member of the shadow cabinet (under three successive Tory leaders) for five. He was previously a speech-writer for Margaret Thatcher while she was prime minister, and Press Secretary and principal spokesman for John Major during the 1992 election campaign.

For the investigation, reporters posed as representatives from Uzbekistan, a brutal dictatorship, in order to find out what promises these firms made and what techniques they would use. In addition to boasts about their access to Conservative top command, executives said they could manipulate Google results to "drown" out negative coverage of human rights violations and child labour, and revealed that they have a team which "sorts" negative Wikipedia entries. They also claimed that they could get MPs known to be critical of investigative reporting such as Channel 4's Dispatches to attack the shows for minor errors. Guido Fawkes has published the firm's Power Point presentation, which also emphasises the need for genuine reform in Uzbekistan.

On a side note, Collins also recommended a meeting with Daniel Finkelstein, chief leader writer at the Times, saying: "He will sit down and have lunch with just about anybody." Finklestein has refuted this on Twitter ("just to reassure you....I most certainly wouldn't and absolutely haven't. It was really quite bizarre.")

Downing Street, too, has denied Bell Pottinger's claims, dismissing the allegations as "outrageous". A spokeswoman said: "Bell Pottinger nor any other lobbying firm has any say or influence over government policy."

It is perfectly possible that executives exaggerated their interest, but either way, this raises further questions about the cosy relationships between government and lobbying firms (Cameron recently bought land from his neighbour and lobbyist, Lord Chadlington).

Cameron himself is well aware of this: he pledged to tackle lobbying five years ago, and reiterated his concern last year. He said that lobbying was "the next big scandal waiting to happen", and that it was "an issue that exposes the far-too-cosy relationship between politics, government, business and money". He also promised to force politics to "[come] clean about who is buying power and influence". Until these promises become reality and proper reform and regulation are implemented, simple denials will be insufficient.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Want to send a positive Brexit message to Europe? Back Arsene Wenger for England manager

Boris Johnson could make a gesture of goodwill. 

It is hard not to feel some sympathy for Sam Allardyce, who coveted the England job for so many years, before losing it after playing just a single match. Yet Allardyce has only himself to blame and the Football Association were right to move quickly to end his tenure.

There are many candidates for the job. The experience of Alan Pardew and the potential of Eddie Howe make them strong contenders. The FA's reported interest in Ralf Rangner sent most of us scurrying to Google to find out who the little known Leipzig manager is. But the standout contender is Arsenal's French boss Arsene Wenger, 

Would England fans accept a foreign manager? The experience of Sven Goran-Eriksson suggests so, especially when the results are good. Nobody complained about having a Swede in charge the night that England won 5-1 in Munich, though Sven's sides never won the glittering prizes, the Swede proving perhaps too rigidly English in his commitment to the 4-4-2 formation.

Fabio Capello's brief stint was less successful. He never seemed happy in the English game, preferring to give interviews in Italian. That perhaps contributed to his abrupt departure, falling out with his FA bosses after he seemed unable to understand why allegations of racial abuse by the England captain had to be taken seriously by the governing body.

Arsene Wenger could not be more different. Almost unknown when he arrived to "Arsene Who?" headlines two decades ago, he became as much part of North London folklore as all-time great Arsenal and Spurs bosses, Herbert Chapman or Bill Nicholson, his own Invicibles once dominating the premier league without losing a game all season. There has been more frustration since the move from Highbury to the Emirates, but Wenger's track record means he ranks among the greatest managers of the last hundred years - and he could surely do a job for England.

Arsene is a European Anglophile. While the media debate whether or not the FA Cup has lost its place in our hearts, Wenger has no doubt that its magic still matters, which may be why his Arsenal sides have kept on winning it so often. Wenger manages a multinational team but England's football traditions have certainly got under his skin. The Arsenal boss has changed his mind about emulating the continental innovation of a winter break. "I would cry if you changed that", he has said, citing his love of Boxing Day football as part of the popular tradition of English football.

Obviously, the FA must make this decision on football grounds. It is an important one to get right. Fifty years of hurt still haven't stopped us dreaming, but losing to Iceland this summer while watching Wales march to the semi-finals certainly tested any lingering optimism. Wenger was as gutted as anybody. "This is my second country. I was absolutely on my knees when we lost to Iceland. I couldn't believe it" he said.

The man to turn things around must clearly be chosen on merit. But I wonder if our new Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson - albeit more of a rugger man himself - might be tempted to quietly  suggest in the corridors of footballing power that the appointment could play an unlikely role in helping to get the mood music in place which would help to secure the best Brexit deal for Britain, and for Europe too.

Johnson does have one serious bit of unfinished business from the referendum campaign: to persuade his new boss Theresa May that the commitments made to European nationals in Britain must be honoured in full.  The government should speed up its response and put that guarantee in place. 

Nor should that commitment to 3m of our neighbours and friends be made grudgingly.

So Boris should also come out and back Arsene for the England job, as a very good symbolic way to show that we will continue to celebrate the Europeans here who contribute so much to our society.

British negotiators will be watching the twists and turns of the battle for the Elysee Palace, to see whether Alain Juppe, Nicolas Sarkozy end up as President. It is a reminder that other countries face domestic pressures over the negotiations to come too. So the political negotiations will be tough - but we should make sure our social and cultural relations with Europe remain warm.

More than half of Britons voted to leave the political structures of the European Union in June. Most voters on both sides of the referendum had little love of the Brussels institutions, or indeed any understanding of what they do.

But how can we ensure that our European neighbours and friends understand and hear that this was no rejection of them - and that so many of the ways that we engage with our fellow Europeans rom family ties to foreign holidays, the European contributions to making our society that bit better - the baguettes and cappuccinos, cultural links and sporting heroes remain as much loved as ever.

We will see that this weekend when nobody in the golf clubs will be asking who voted Remain and who voted Leave as we cheer on our European team - seven Brits playing in the twelve-strong side, alongside their Spanish, Belgian, German, Irish and Swedish team-mates.

And now another important opportunity to get that message across suddenly presents itself.

Wenger for England. What better post-Brexit commitment to a new Entente Cordiale could we possibly make?

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.