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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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.