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.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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