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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Winning Scottish independence will be even harder than before - but it may be the only choice

Independence campaigners will have to find answers on borders, currency and more. 

The Brexit mutiny has taken not just the UK economy and its relationship with Europe into uncharted waters. it has also imperilled the union between Scotland and England. From Sir John Major to the First Minister, both Unionists and Nationalists had warned of it. The outcome, though, has made this certain. The Leave vote in England and Wales contrasted with an overwhelming Remain vote north of the border.

That every region in Scotland voted to stay In was quite remarkable. Historically, fishing and industrial communities have blamed the European Union for their woes. That antagonism was probably reflected in lower turnout - an abstention rather than a rejection. 

The talk now is of a second referendum on independence. This is understandable given the current mood. Opinion polls in the Sunday Times and Sunday Post showed a Yes vote now at 52 per cent and 59 per cent respectively. Moreover, anecdotal evidence suggests even arch No vote campaigners, from JK Rowling to the Daily Record, are considering the option.

The First Minister was therefore correct to say that a second referendum is now “back on the table”. Her core supporters expects no less. However, as with the economy and Europe, the constitutional relationship between Scotland and England is now in uncharted seas. Potential support for independence may be higher, but the challenges are arguably bigger than before. The difficulties are practical, political and geographic.

Of course the Little Englanders likely to take the helm may choose a velvet divorce. However, given their desire for the return of the Glories of Britannia that’s improbable. They’re as likely to wish to see Caledonia depart, as cede Gibraltar to Spain, even though that territory voted even more overwhelmingly In.

Ticking the legal boxes

Practically, there’s the obstacle of obtaining a legal and binding referendum. The past vote was based on the Edinburgh Agreement and legislation in Westminster and Holyrood. The First Minister has indicated the democratic arguments of the rights of the Scots. However, that’s unlikely to hold much sway. A right-wing centralist Spanish government has been willing to face down demands for autonomy in Catalonia. Would the newly-emboldened Great Britain be any different?

There are no doubt ways in which democratic public support can be sought. The Scottish Government may win backing in Holyrood from the Greens. However, consent for such action would need to be obtained from the Presiding Officer and the Lord Advocate, both of whom have a key role in legislation. These office holders have changed since the first referendum, where they were both more sympathetic and the legal basis clearer. 

Getting the EU on side

The political hurdles are, also, greater this time than before. Previously the arguments were over how and when Scotland could join the EU, although all accepted ultimately she could remain or become a member. This time the demand is that Scotland should remain and the rest of the UK can depart. But will that be possible? The political earthquake that erupted south of the Border has set tectonic plates shifting, not just in the British isles but across the European continent. The fear that a Brexit would empower dark forces in the EU may come to pass. Will the EU that the UK is about to leave be there for an independent Scotland to join? We cannot know, whatever European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker may be saying at the moment. The First Minister is right to start engaging with Europe directly. But events such as elections in France and the Netherlands are outwith her control. 

Moreover, currency was the Achilles heel in the last referendum, and hasn’t yet been addressed. George Osborne was adamant in his rejection of a currency union. The options this time round, whether a separate Scottish currency or joining the euro, have yet to be properly explored. A worsened financial situation in the 27 remaining EU members hampers the latter and the former remains politically problematic. 

The problem of borders

Geography is also an obstacle  that will be even harder to address now than before. Scotland can change its constitution, but it cannot alter its location on a shared island. In 2014, the independence argument was simply about changing the political union. Other unions, whether monarchy or social, would remain untouched. The island would remain seamless, without border posts. An independent Scotland, whether in or out of the EU, would almost certainly have to face these issues. That is a significant change from before, and the effect on public opinion unknown.

The risk that's worth it

Ultimately, the bar for a Yes vote may be higher, but the Scots may still be prepared to jump it. As with Ireland in 1920, facing any risk may be better than remaining in the British realm. Boris Johnson as Prime Minister would certainly encourage that. 

David Cameron's lack of sensitivity after the independence referendum fuelled the Scottish National Party surge. But perhaps this time, the new Government will be magnanimous towards Scotland and move to federalism. The Nordic Union offers an example to be explored. Left-wing commentators have called for a progressive alliance to remove the Tories and offer a multi-option referendum on Scotland’s constitution. But that is dependent on SNP and Labour being prepared to work together, and win the debate in England and Wales.

So, Indy Ref The Sequel is on the table. It won’t be the same as the first, and it will be more challenging. But, if there is no plausible alternative, Scots may consider it the only option.

Kenny MacAskill served as a Scottish National MSP between 2007 and 2016, and as Cabinet Secretary for Justice between 2007 and 2014.