Ministerial promises of a new “register of lobbyists” in the wake of two new political sleaze scandals could be less helpful than they seem because their proposals for reform would not necessarily help clean up Westminster.
The latest reputational calamities involved separate stings: by the BBC and Panorama on Patrick Mercer, a Conservative MP, and by the Sunday Times newspaper on a trio of peers in the House of Lords.
In both cases, the politicians agreed to ask questions and set up either groups or events to represent fictional clients, breaching parliamentary rules.
But would a new industry register really give the UK’s political scene a deep clean?
Even those attempting to revive the plan, first drawn up several years ago, admitted this was not the case: “How much difference would it have made? Almost none,” said one aide to Nick Clegg. The deputy prime minister wrote on Monday that the register would, nonetheless, go ahead once the fine details were thrashed out: “It will happen.”
At the very least, if a register had existed, Mr Mercer could have avoided the sting. Checking the identity of Alistair Andrews Communications, the sham agency that approached him, he could have worked out it was a fake, and avoided offering to ask questions about Fiji on its behalf in return for several thousand pounds.
Likewise, the two Labour and one Ulster Unionist peer might also have avoided public entrapment.
Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister, also said the register was immaterial because the alleged misdemeanours had been “against the rules”.
But proponents say this is not the point and Mr Clegg notes that Westminster decisions are “opaque”.
His aide said lobbying had a role to play, allowing individuals, charities and business groups to press their case to government. “But the whole area has a deserved reputation for being murky and unaccountable, one way to sort that out is bringing in a register.”
Mr Clegg also wants to revive plans for a “power of recall”, where an MP would be forced to stand down if 10 per cent of their constituents signed a petition.
That process would be triggered if an MP was sent to jail, or if the House of Commons decided an MP’s behaviour warranted it.
Lobbyists reacted with resignation to the latest scandals, noting that once again no professionals from their industry had been involved – only politicians and undercover journalists.
“My starting point is that this is a lobbying scandal where there are no professional lobbyists to be seen,” said Iain Anderson, deputy chairman of the Association of Professional Political Consultants.
The same was true of other lobbying scandals, such as that of Adam Werritty, the friend and informal adviser of Liam Fox, a former defence secretary. Mr Werritty turned out to be privately funded by a diverse cast of six wealthy backers.
Another executive said the latest stories did his industry a disservice: “Nobody in their right mind would bribe Patrick Mercer to do anything.”
Either way, the fresh rows have brought back into the spotlight a long-running coalition plan for a compulsory lobbyist register, which was dropped from last month’s Queen’s Speech.
Senior party figures had told the Financial Times that the register was omitted from the legislative programme following advice from Lynton Crosby, the Tory election supremo, to drop unnecessary policies. Mr Crosby, who works part-time for the Conservative party, co-owns a polling and lobbying consultancy called Crosby Textor.
Before that, there had been controversy over whether the register should include only “third party” advisers or also business groups, charities and companies dealing with the government.
Ministers had retreated from the idea of widening the definition of lobbyists in this way.
But Jon Trickett, Labour’s shadow minister for the Cabinet Office, wrote to Prime Minister David Cameron on Monday calling for immediate action on a code that should be broad enough to catch anyone who lobbied – “whether third party or not”.
John Lehal, managing director of Insight Public Affairs, a consultancy, said there should be a “level playing field” for everyone who lobbied. “The risk now is that the government introduces knee-jerk legislation that still won’t tackle the underlying issue,” he said.