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.