MPs for Hire:Agents of Influence: MPs and Lobbying Companies

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'Lobbyists are the touts of protected industries.'
Sir Winston Churchill

'MPs can't be expected to give us the detail as a labour of love, can they?'
Douglas Smith, political lobbyist, Sunday Times, October 1983

There is a little-known ritual in politics known as 'prayers'. In government, this refers to the summoning of civil servants by ministers for a policy meeting. But in the discreet world of lobbying, 'prayers' has an altogether different connotation.

'Prayers' take place in the small, sparsely furnished offices of political consultancy companies, usually in a Westminster side-street close to the House of Commons. Once a month, usually late in the morning, a back-bench MP arrives to deliver a political 'briefing'. These are informal sessions, and vary from tame parliamentary gossip to detailed information about government plans for a specific industry.

It is, of course, not unusual for politicians to talk to lobbyists. But at 'prayers' there is a difference. The back-benchers are financially rewarded for their efforts at an average fee of £8,000 a year. They are, according to one lobbyist, 'paid hacks, nothing more. There have always been lobbyists pressure groups, single-issue campaigners and charities. But the notion of M Ps as paid advisers to specialised political consultancy companies is a relatively new one.

Political lobbying is now big business. There are over fifty such firms, with an estimated total turnover of £10 million.[1] A survey in 1985 reported that of 180 major British companies, 41 per cent retained political consultancies for 'Government work'.[2] Fees range from £2,500 to £5,000 a month, depending on the type of service required.[3] The average annual rate is about £30,000.

Essentially, the role of the political lobbyist is to act as a conduit between commercial and consumer outfits and the government. Corporate executives are often mystified and stage-struck by Westminster and Whitehall. Fortunately for lobbyists, MPs, civil servants and ministers are equally bewildered and easily impressed by the financial and business community.

Enter the middlemen in sharp suits with a special line in smooth talk and fancy promises. They offer their clients parliamentary contacts, confidential information, meetings with ministers and officials, lunches with MPs and advice on how to alter and influence legislation. And what better way of getting on the inside track than placing a back-bencher on the payroll?

Commander Powell and the Old Guard

Specialist, professional lobbyists have been active in the political arena for decades. One of the most distinguished and controversial was Commander Christopher Powell.

Born in 1903, Powell was educated in Dartmouth and joined the Royal Navy, serving in the Mediterranean and the Far East. In 1929 he formed his first consultancy, providing a secretarial service for Tory MPs. In partnership with Charles Watney, Powell then developed a lobbying business serving a combination of causes (a life-long passion for the Channel Tunnel) and commerce (Tate and Lyle).

Commander Powell became the doyen of old-fashioned lobbyists. He was essentially a parliamentary draughtsman. He knew every rule in minute detail and was an expert in guiding private bills through the House. After the Second World War, his influence was such that he even had his own office in the Commons. He would strut around the Palace of Westminster dressed in a black jacket and striped trousers, and many visitors even mistook him for the Serjeant-at-Arms. His brilliance was tempered by a touch of arrogance. On one occasion, while striding, down a Commons corridor, he was approached by a senior Cabinet minister. 'Not now, Minister, I'm busy,' said Powell brusquely, and marched on.

In the late 1940s Powell ran into trouble while full-time secretary of the British section of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU). The Speaker ruled that there was a danger of a conflict of interests between his IPU post and his clients, who might promote or oppose parliamentary bills.[4] Powell was accused of 'running a lobbying agency on the American principle' amid evidence that he tried to prevent an MP from entering a standing committee.[5]

Despite his enforced resignation from the IPU, Powell's career flourished, mainly through unrivalled political contacts. He was a close personal friend of Margaret and Denis Thatcher, who used to rent a cottage on the lobbyist's estate at Hors Monsden, Kent. But in the late 1970s Powell was again the focus of controversy. While working with Tory MP Sir Gerald Nabarro on a campaign to abolish purchase tax, he secretly drafted hundreds of questions to the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Powell died in 1989. His record is not without achievement. He revitalised the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee, making it more broadly based. His company, later to become Charles Barker, Watney and Powell, tended to lobby for causes and campaigns rather than commercial interests. But former employees have mixed feelings about him. They say he was a remarkable operator but that his expertise enabled him to influence Parliament to an 'undemocratic' extent. One claimed the Commander's power was such that he could draft, amend and virtually pass private bills through the Commons.

Powell may have over-reached himself on occasion, but he was principled on one issue. He was strongly opposed to MPs being hired guns. 'He would have been shocked by their recent activities,' said one former employee, 'because he never paid MPs anything. He totally disapproved of MPs being paid consultants.'

The grey zone and the invasion of the news-snatchers

The watershed between old- and new-style political lobbying coincided with the more direct intervention of government in the economy during the late 1950s and 1960s Lobbyists became more than mere public-relations merchants. They acted as middlemen between the private and public sector and hired MPs to facilitate this process. In 1957 eighteen MPs were known to be retained by public-relations firms. By 1965, they numbered at least fifty.[6] The potential for corruption was first noticed by the MP Francis Noel-Baker: 'The growth of so-called "public relations" in all its aspects means that Members of Parliament have themselves become more attractive allies for business interests than they have been in the past. The door, in fact, is wide open for a new form of political corruption.'[7] He added that in the past these connections and their practitioners 'were usually well-known and identified themselves openly'. But now there was what Andrew Roth has called 'the grey zone'.[8] These consultancies involved one-off fees and retainers, needed no professional experience, no obligation to keep office hours and could be kept secret from the public.

It was this type of relationship that resulted in a major scandal. In April 1968, PR agent Maurice Fraser escorted a party of five MPs to visit one of his clients - the Colonels' regime in Greece. Fraser's firm was being paid £100,000 a year to promote the notorious new junta throughout Europe and their contract was up for renewal that September. One of the MPs on the trip was Labour's Gordon Bagier, whom Fraser had encountered while lobbying for casino interests. Four weeks later Fraser hired Bagier as a consultant at £500 a year plus commission for any new clients he was able to secure for the lobbying company.

The following month, in June 1968, Fraser Associates compiled a secret report on their activities. It boasted how the firm had 'a lobbyist MP' working for them behind the scenes. When press and TV enquiries disclosed Bagier's association with the firm, the M P admitted the consultancy but denied lobbying for the junta.[9] A subsequent inquiry did nothing to resolve the problem the secrecy and lack of accountability of the new lobbyists — and by the mid-1970s the situation had seriously deteriorated, even as the Poulson scandal continued to reverberate around the corridors of Westminster. It reached a nadir in the summer of 1976 when the Labour government tried to implement the Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Act.

As this act involved extensive nationalisation, it was bitterly opposed by private industry. One of the companies targeted for state take-over, Bristol Channel Ship Repairers Ltd, decided to take evasive action. They hired International News Service, a political PR agency, which retained a Labour MP, Ben Ford, and a Tory MP, Stephen McAdden, chairman of the bill's standing committee, as paid consult-ants. According to Bob Cryer, then a minister in the Department of Industry, which sponsored the legislation, the lobbyists 'ran riot'. International News Service invaded the Palace of Westminster like a marauding army. Private dining rooms were hired for sponsored 'entertainment'. A boat, The Lucky Dragon, was chartered and laid on lavish drinks parties on the Thames. MPs were accosted in the lobbies before crucial votes on the bill. It was not even safe to venture on to the Commons terrace or into the Strangers Bar for a drink without being button-holed by an International News Service lobbyist. 'They treated the Palace of Westminster as if they owned it,' recalled Cryer.

The strategy of Bristol Channel Ship Repairers and International News Service was clear. The Labour government had a small majority. If just a few back-benchers could be persuaded to vote against the bill, it could be defeated. But some MPs objected to their tactics, and the Select Committee on Commons Services held an inquiry into International News Service's activities. A member of that committee during the investigation was the Labour MP Ben Ford.

Ford played down his role as consultant to International News Service: 'I merely advise this company on points of parliamentary procedure... I am quite satisfied in my own mind that there have been no improprieties committed.'[10] The PR agency's managing director, Alan Turnbull, said that their parliamentary consultants were paid a fee so that 'we can ring them up and say: "We have a problem. What do you think?"'[11] But many MPs were shocked by his company's activities and saw it as producing a new generation of political influence-brokers. These Westminster hustlers were more aggressive, commercially orientated and were also prepared to pay MPs.

'Please don't call me a lobbyist'

Lobbyists hate being called lobbyists. A number of suitably grand epithets - 'public-affairs consultant', 'government-relations adviser', 'political communications strategist' have been devised to provide respectable introduction in polite company. As one American lobbyist noted: 'My mother has never introduced me to her friends as "my son, the lobbyist". My son, the Washington Representative, maybe. Or the Legislative Consultant. Or the Government Relations Counsel. But never as a Lobbyist. I can't say I blame her.'[12] Their unpopularity stems from the secrecy of their methods and the extravagance of their promises. Conservative M P Robert Adley refers to lobbyists as 'leeches'.[13] Using uncharacteristically strong language, he said: 'There is an increasing army, frankly, of spivs around this place, some of whom seem to be able to attract the services of M Ps for piddling sums of money, who are responsible in my view for perverting this place.'[14]

As there is no register of lobbyists or any form of public accountability for the industry, it is difficult fully to assess Adley's tirade. But there is some evidence that sheds light on their methods.

Promises, promises

Lobbyists are adept at making convincing claims to clients about the extent of their influence. Among the keenest on marketing his pro-duct was Sir Trevor Lloyd-Hughes.

A former political correspondent, Sir Trevor was Press Secretary to Prime Minister Harold Wilson from 1964 to 1969. After a brief spell as chief information adviser to that Labour government, he set up his own 'public-affairs' consultancy. Among his fifty clients were multi-national companies and foreign governments, notably a £120,000 a year contract with the South African-backed regime of Namibia in the early 1980s. Lloyd-Hughes Associates' maxim was to smooth the 'interface between our clients and those in power':

'We prefer to be used as a fire prevention service, rather than a fire-fighting team, and to develop friendships in high places before a contact is needed to help with a definite problem.'[15]

The company was almost like a dating agency. One of Sir Trevor's favourite services for clients was to host meetings at his clubs - the Reform and Belfry or his south London home. As he reported:

Organised lunches and receptions, some within the Houses of Parliament, attended by important people. Arranged for business leaders, including the heads of American, French and British companies, to have private meetings with eminent personalities in London, including Cabinet Min-isters, former Prime Ministers, the Queen's Principal Private Secretary, former British Ambassadors, and men at the very top of the UK diplomatic and Civil Service.[16]

According to Sir Trevor, his methods have been successful.

We have obtained important tax concessions from the British government over their legislation on North Sea oil revenues. Saved the international motor car and motor-cycle industries based in the UK millions of pounds by persuading the government to exempt them from provisions in the Trade Descriptions Acts. Won British government financial backing for a major development in Turkey.[17]

Lloyd-Hughes is often dismissed by fellow lobbyists as part of 'the old school' and not relevant to the contemporary scene. But a letter written by a budding new consultant revealed that attitudes have not changed significantly.

The author was Donald Stewart, constituency agent to Peter Brooke, Conservative MP for City of London and Westminster South and a Cabinet minister since 1987. In June 1989, while Brooke was chairman of the Tory Party, Stewart wrote to a prospective client: 'I understand that you may be interested to know about the services I could offer your company.' Among the eight services on offer were:

Contact with ministers and civil servants in departments such as the DTI and Energy in order to enhance their understanding of the needs of your industry and company.

Arrangement of luncheons and dinners for ministers, MPs and MEPs to meet and speak to company directors and managers and, if desired, their guests.

Arrangement of carefully tailored social events, such as theatre, opera and sporting occasions, affording senior company personnel the opportunity to brief legislators and others on the company's needs and interests.

The letter, written on Westminster Conservative Association note-paper, concluded that it was being sent 'in a personal and entirely confidential capacity'. Stewart was unsuccessful in his bid to become a paid lobbyist while remaining Peter Brooke's agent. But it demon-strates the type of tactics employed by present-day lobbyists.

That's entertainment

An American lobbyist once quipped that: 'The way to a man's "aye" is through his stomach.'[18] This form of influence-peddling is often derided by parliamentary wags, who argue that there is indeed such a thing as a free lunch. But the use of expensive meals and evening entertainment is a common method to either extract information from or influence an MP - 'Gastronomic pimping', Aneurin Bevan called it.[19]

One company which was keen on this approach was David McDonough and Associates. Billed as 'corporate affairs consultants', the firm retained a Tory MP, Martin Stevens, as a paid adviser. Their clients included senior executives from Hambros Bank, Unigate and Thames Television.

Part of their repertoire was 'The Working Lunch Concept', which 'can be an effective weapon in your corporate communications armoury'. For prospective clients McDonough promised to:

Generate a guest-list, supported by biographical details, to be agreed with you. What is the best number to create the desired atmosphere? Draw up a suggested menu and wine-list. Extravagant banquets may not always create a favourable impression, but a more modest meal calls, if anything, for more skill in composition.

Agree a table-plan, and provide hosts and guests with (a) background notes on all present and (b) a time-table, ensuring that guests know what to expect, and when.

This is part of the soft-soak style of power-broking which involves being the facilitator for clients. It is a practice often ridiculed:

Go to Lockets, a plush Westminster restaurant, on any weekday lunch-time and you can play 'spot the lobbyist'. It is easy: pick out a member of Parliament who looks well-fed but bored. He will be sharing a table with an earnest-looking industrialist who smiles rather too readily, and a stripey-shirt-and-spotty-tie-clad PR man who seems well intentioned but slightly vacant.

The industrialist will be flattered by the M P's attentions. The M P will be pleased to prove that there is indeed such a thing as a free lunch. And the PR man will take the profit from what will often have been an expensive waste of time.[20]

Despite such well-founded criticism, companies continue to use 'hospitality' as an enticement to influence decision-making. 'It's not unknown,' said the experienced lobbyist Douglas Smith, 'for various ploys to be used to secure attendance at a bill to obtain a quorum. On one occasion, I remember a group who staged a whisky-tasting party to coincide with a very dull environment bill in which they had no interest. When the party ended, the M Ps were steered into the nearby House [for their debate].'[21] Other inducements for MPs to attend certain late-night Commons debates include champagne supper parties and film shows, usually at nearby hotels.

For some lobbyists their colleagues' extravagant promises and la carte methods are a fraud. Douglas Smith, a former chairman of the professional practices committee of the Public Relations Consultants Association, said:

Large fees are being charged running into six figures - based on false promises, and when the clients' funds or hopes are exhausted, the cowboy consultants move on to fresh prey. They bring Parliament and public relations 'into disrepute.

Some of these companies are taking on every cause that moves, regard-less of its chances of success. Companies and trade associations were being advised they had excellent prospects of influencing the government when, in reality, there was not a chance in a thousand of doing so.[22]

Whatever the degree of influence of lobbyists, their activities remain a serious threat to democracy. As Labour MP Bob Cryer commented: 'If the claims of certain lobbyists are true, they are alarming. If false, those who make them are charlatans. In both cases they require scrutiny so that the public is not in any way deceived.'[23]

The hidden clients

In January 1991, thirty-five MPs were paid advisers or directors to lobbying or consultancy firms.[24] They are not obliged to declare their clients in the Register. Consequently, an M P can act for any organisation or company and merely disclose the innocuous-sounding lobbying or family firm. For example, George Gardiner, Conservative M P for Reigate, was employed by T. A. Cutbill and Partners between 1985 and 1987. But his constituents remained unaware that this was a public-relations outfit whose clients included the Wines and Spirits Association and the brewers Whitbread Ltd.[25]

Clients can be traced through other sources, but most M Ps prefer to keep this information secret. Michael Mates, a consultant to Good Relations Ltd since 1977, said: 'Arrangements between myself and Good Relations are a matter for me and them.'[26] His lobbying firm, which also paid two other M Ps, was equally shy: 'We cannot let you have any details of the consultancy fees, of the specific clients with whom these MPs have contact because this is commercially confi-dential information.'[27] Timothy Brinton, consultant to Communications Strategy Ltd from 1982. until 1987, declared:

I am available to Communications Strategy for help and advice, but I am not prepared to enter into correspondence as to which clients may be involved, or indeed what consultancy fees may be paid. Parliament makes no requirement that I should do so and I would regard this as a private matter between myself and Communications Strategy.[28]

Some MPs do identify their clients but the vast majority prefer to keep this information hidden from the public. This has caused some anxiety in Parliament. James Cran, Tory MP for Beverley, said: 'I'm not interested in being paid by lobbyists because I want to look at things dispassionately But if MPs are consultants, we ought to know the clients that they personally are connected with and that should be listed in the Register of Interests.'[29] Lobbyists also believe transparency is needed. John Russell and Charles Miller both argue that full declaration of clients should be made compulsory. Russell is particularly disturbed because of his direct experience of MPs acting as introductory agents for lobbying companies. According to him, many elected representatives spend their time recruiting clients in exchange for commission fees. Russell has found, much to his astonishment, that many of his competitors are in fact MPs - either trying to secure clients, offering their own services directly or working as lobbying firms themselves.

Return of the Fox

The lure of the lobbying firm seems particularly attractive to junior ministers leaving public office. This was the case for Conservative MPs Keith Speed and Sir Marcus Fox. After being sacked as Defence and Environment ministers, respectively, in 1981, they set up their own 'public-affairs consultancy' the following year.

Entitled Westminster Communications Ltd, the firm was dominated by Speed and Fox. According to Sir Marcus: 'We thought if we, as Members of Parliament, were actually controlling the company we could ensure we only acted for those clients who we were convinced were of good standing... We worked on that basis, with another two directors who joined us, in a small way.'[30]

The two MPs have built up a client list of fifty companies, ranging from the Pools Promoters Association to Suzuki cars and the InterCity division of British Rail. One of their earliest clients was the British Motor-Cycle Association. Speed, a junior Transport minister from 1972 to 1974, had been their consultant from 1975 until 1979, when he became Navy Secretary. On founding Westminster Com-munications in 1982, Speed regained the Motor-Cycle Association account and the lobbying began. One of his most successful opera-tions was to persuade the government not to charge the industry £70,000 in back-dated VAT on motorbike tests. The association's chairman appreciated his efforts. At a meeting soon afterwards, he complimented the MP:

'Well, we're most grateful that you've man-aged to get us relieved of this awful backlog, because we haven't been charging VAT and we didn't think we should have to charge VAT. But if we had, it would be sixty to seventy thousand pounds we'd have got to find from somewhere.'

'I think it took everybody a bit by surprise,' replied Speed. 'I mean, you had to act rather swiftly and I give all the credit to the Minister for realising there was a problem.'

'And all credit to you,' said the chairman. 'This is a good example of how having a friendly man in the House of Commons can be an enormous assistance to us. I don't think we'd have ever got this settled without your help.'

'Well, I think there was a good case, you know, and we all weighed in.'[31]

Sir Marcus also worked on the Motor-Cycle Association account. On one occasion, in his capacity as a director of Westminster Communications,[32] he led a delegation from the industry to the Department of Transport. Sir Marcus arranged a private meeting with Peter Bottomley, then Minister for Roads and Traffic, to discuss the controversial issue of leg-shields for riders. The M P introduced the participants but took no part in the discussion.[33]

Sir Marcus says that his involvement in Westminster Communications is 'negligible' because of 'my other commitments'.[34] But, apart from leading delegations, he attends board meetings and monitors the client list. He also has a financial stake in the company: 'Having made an initial investment, and being a canny Yorkshireman, there is no reason why I should give up a shareholding which, because of amalgamations, has increased somewhat I consider this to be an investment which, hopefully, will look after me and my dear family later on in life.'[35]

Sir Marcus is an ardent defender of MPs as lobbyists:

'There is a need for a lobbying industry. That is proved by the success of com-panies, their growth and the fact that people are prepared to pay for this sort of information and the amount of time that is spent in often putting a good case forward.' He added that MPs 'had certain advantages by virtue of our experience'.[36]

Communicating political influence

One of the longest-standing lobbying partnerships has been between Douglas Smith and the Tory MP Peter Fry. The two met in 1961 while working at Conservative Central Office. Smith, a chatty extro-vert, was a publicity officer and Tory councillor while Fry was the political education officer. They became close friends but their paths diverged when Fry left to work as an insurance broker.

In 1969 Fry became the Conservative MP for Wellingborough and resumed his partnership with Smith. Within six years they had set up their own company, Political Research and Communication International Ltd. Fry was chairman, with a seat on the board and a 30 per cent shareholding. Smith was managing director with a 50 per cent stake. The company describes itself as 'specialists in public affairs', claiming that 'our role always involves political intelligence'. Smith is the foot-soldier of the operation. Armed with a Commons pass, he roams the corridors of the Palace of Westminster, visits the library, convenes meetings of M Ps and collects documents from the Vote Office. Fry is the adviser and consultant, more inclined to brief company executives behind the scenes.

Their clients are mainly in the transport arena. This has created a potential conflict of interests, as Fry has been a member of the Com-mons Select Committee for Transport since its foundation in 1980. The most graphic example of this was his company's consultancy with the National Bus Company (NBC).

During the 1985 Transport Bill, which deregulated the bus indus-try, Fry lobbied actively for his client.37 He made speeches in the chamber and sponsored a Commons motion congratulating the Bus and Coach Council (of which NBC was a leading member) on its response to the government's White Paper on the bill. His company also helped British Aerospace secure government funds for the Airbus[38] and monitored legislation on behalf of the Scottish Transport Group?[39]

Fry was particularly active on behalf of the British Leather Federation. Clients since 1984, they view the MP as more than just an adviser: 'Certainly, he [Fry] is our spokesman in the House. There is a constituency interest because so much of the industry is centred in Northamptonshire but, yes, we retain him as well through his consultancy compatiy.'[40] In return Fry talks to the director-general and the committee about 'the political scene'. The MP's company also provides 'an information service so that they are aware of what is happening in both Houses and, indeed, what legislation might be forthcoming to give them an opportunity to realise about any threats to them or any influence they might want to make upon legislation'.[41]

One concern for the leather industry was water privatisation, and so Fry led a deputation to the Department of the Environment to see the Minister of State.[42] A greater 'threat' was competition from the Japanese leather industry. In April 1987, Fry decided to intervene on the British Leather Federation's behalf. On two occasions during Prime Minister's Question Time he rose to put their case but was unsuccessful. Then, on Thursday 9 April 1987, Fry was called. He congratulated Mrs. Thatcher on the government's 'strong line' on trade with Japan and added:

Will she please bear in mind in the negotiations that she has announced that there are some British industries which are particularly heavily penalised? I put in a plea on behalf of the British leather manufacturing indus-try which, after a very small quota, has to surmount a tariff of 60 per cent to export to Japan. Will she ask our negotiators to do their best for that industry?[43]

Mrs Thatcher replied that she was 'aware of that particular industry and the problems that Japanese imports cause'. She argued that any action must be taken with 'the rest of the [European] Community'.

Fry did not declare his interest when lobbying the Prime Minister. Nor had he registered his consultancy, entering the British Leather Federation as a client only after his Commons intervention. According to Fry, this was because it was the first time he had been involved in parliamentary activity on behalf of his client.

Over the years Fry has prided himself on declaring the clients of his company. Indeed, when he registered seventeen clients in 1985 this caused some consternation among other M Ps, clearly anxious it would create a precedent. They told him it was not necessary.[44] He did so again in 1989, 1990 and 1991. But he failed to register any clients in 1983, 1984, 1986, 1987 and 1988.

Fry is a staunch defender of his business interests:

If MPs are going fully to understand what is happening in the country, it is very dangerous that we should cocoon ourselves and be all professional politicians I am there to represent my constituents, to understand the kind of problems that my constituents suffer, whether they be industrialists or employees, and so I think it is very useful to have some kind of outside business activity.[45]

But when asked by fellow Conservative M P Sir Michael McNair-Wilson: 'Why do you have to be paid to fulfil that task?' Fry declined to answer the question, except to say that other MPs are paid retainers by 'a whole host of industries'[46]

Perhaps the answer can be found in a remark by Fry's partner Douglas Smith, who said: 'MPs can't be expected to give us the detail as a labour of love, can they?'[47]

A stake in the Chunnel

The multi-billion pound Channel Tunnel project has created a jamboree for lobbyists. There are several sources of business, ranging from construction corporations hungry for the contracts to build the tunnel and banks underwriting various consortiums, through ferry companies opposed to a fixed link, to environmentalists hostile to the scheme.

Lobbying started in earnest in October 1985 and continued over an intense 100-day campaign, necessitated by the fact that the government would make its decision in late January 1986.

The role of MPs was particularly significant, since ministers would select the type of Channel Tunnel scheme. But the final decision would be made by the Commons through a special form of legislation known as a hybrid bill. An unusual device, it enabled private operators and objectors to put their views before a special Commons committee where M Ps could also pass vital amendments. Hence back-benchers were able to exert a greater influence on the bill's passage.

The consortiums sprung into action. Cabinet ministers were dined at the Garrick Club and Ritz Hotel. The lobbyists' champagne flowed. But many MPs were unhappy with the tactics. Jonathan Aitken, the Conservative M P for Thanet South, whose Kent constituents were opposed to the Tunnel, believed it was more about buying influence than informing the public: 'What worries me most is that usually lobbying is genuine in the sense that it stems from little interest groups and concerned citizens. Here we are seeing the Panzer division of big business, their heavy artillery and tanks trampling over all the small people's interests which I want to see better defended.'[48]

It was not just pro-Tunnel commercial concerns that commissioned lobbying fire-power. Flexilink, an international consortium of ferry companies and port authorities, hired the Grayling Group of PR firms to help them campaign against the fixed-link plan. Grayling was a powerful outfit for the anti-Tunnel brigade and retained David Atkin-son, Tory MP for Bournemouth Easi, as a paid consultant. Atkinson was an assiduous lobbyist. Between 1982. and 1985 he had been a director of another parliamentary PR firm, Modus Politicus. Since 1983 he has been a partner in Exponential Parliamentary Advisers, whose clients have included Dewe Rogerson, another lobbying company. By December 1985, the lobbying for the Chunnel had reached its climax. But Atkinson had not declared his consultancy with Gray-ling. It was only after being challenged by B B C's Newsnight programme that the M P registered the client. 'I don't see there is any conflict of interests here,' he said.49 No less embarrassing for Atkinson was the disclosure that he was also a consultant to a lobbying firm whose clients included a pro-Tunnel consortium. This was Good Relations, representing the Channel Tunnel Group, which consisted of four major construction companies and two clearing banks. Atkinson saw no problem in being paid by both sides, arguing that: 'A political consultancy doesn't mean backing everything their clients do.'[50]

The building firms in the Channel Tunnel Group consortium were more directly represented in Parliament. Wimpey's consultant was Den Dover, Tory MP for Chorley, who was paid £8,000 a year for his services. In an interview with Newsnight, he explained what he did for his client: 'I have arranged meetings with ministers. I've made sure that everything connected with the Channel Tunnel has been brought to Wimpey's attention. If they want to have a particular say at any moment, then I've made sure that their voice is heard.'[51] Dover lobbied parliamentary private secretaries and hosted lunches and afternoon teas for MPs 'to make sure they have adequate knowl-edge of our scheme'.[52]

Dover was also a member of the Transport Select Committee, and in December 1985 it was his vote that proved crucial in a 4:3 majority to back the Channel Tunnel Group scheme. This caused some unease among committee members but Dover insists he acted independently:

'I believe in one particular scheme and I've made sure as member of the Transport Select Committee and consultant to Wimpey that they basically came up with what I think is the right scheme I don't draw much of a fee and I don't spend many hours of the week with Wimpey but what I do I'm sure they get good value for.[53]

Another Conservative MP, Robin Squire, also had an interest in the Channel Tunnel Group option. He was financial consultant to Lombard North Central Ltd, a subsidiary of the National Westminster Bank, which was part of the Channel Tunnel Group consortium. At the same time, he was the parliamentary adviser to Sea Containers, a leading component of the rival Channel Expressway. He was hired soon after resigning as parliamentary private secretary to Lynda Chalker, then Minister of State for Transport. 'We felt he was particularly qualified,' said James Sherwood, chairman of Sea Containers, 'because he has been associated with the Ministry of Transport and therefore was one of the best available advisers.'[54]

Squire would brief and advise the company, and even fellow MPs. At one Sea Containers presentation for the Transport Select Committee he was introduced by executives as their new consultant. This caused some embarrassment for those present. 'I found it somewhat distressing,' said Liberal MP Stephen Ross. 'We were there to learn about their scheme and immediately we find that someone had been retained to boost their image within the House.'[55] Squire maintained he was acting in a merely advisory capacity. He said that when it came to the Commons, he would refuse to vote or speak on any Chunnel scheme that involved him directly.[56]

Objectors to British Rail's plans for a high-speed rail link from London to the Channel Tunnel through Kent have also resorted to lobbyists. The most active has been Channel Communications, a Kent-based firm which has represented local groups like Ashford Homeowners Association (AHA) and Sellindge Against British Rail Excesses (SABRE). In 1989 Channel Communications hired Gwyneth Dunwoody, the Labour MP for Crewe and Nantwich, as a consultant.

Dunwoody, a member of the Commons Transport Select Committee and sponsored by the National Union of Railwaymen was used on an ad hoc basis by the lobbying company. According to its director, David Crowhurst, who used to work for the Grayling PR company: 'Gwyneth has acted as a political consultant as and when we have needed advice on specific campaigns and gets a consultancy fee according to the work she does.'[57] He later commented: 'We paid her for six consultancies. It was a very small amount. But it was no more than what was achieved. All Mrs Dunwoody really did was put a few questions down in the House and book a few committee rooms.'[58]

Dunwoody acted for both AHA and SABRE, but neglected to declare the consultancy in the Register. In February 1990 she admit-ted working for Channel Communications: 'We had a preliminary arrangement and I didn't declare it because all I did was book a couple of rooms at the Commons; I was just helping a new firm and it will not be continuing.'[59]

The key point about the lobbying for the Channel Tunnel contract was its unequal nature. Commercial interests were buying political influence using PR outfits and MPs while ordinary citizens were at a clear disadvantage. Hiring M Ps only added to the imbalance. As Jonathan Aitken reflected: 'If you're going to be a guardian of the public interest, you can't be paid for by one side of the argument. You've got to be neutral and you've got to hold the ring between competing interest groups. I make no secret of the fact that I'm trying to stick up for my constituents.'[60]

'Mr 5 per cent'

In the boardroom of the offices of Ian Greer Associates at 19 Catherine Place is a specially commissioned oil-painting of the Palace of Westminster. On the ground floor is a division bell specially linked to the Commons for the benefit of MPs and ministers. They serve as reminders to any visiting client of the type of political consultant they are employing. For Ian Greer is the doyen of the new breed of parliamentary lobbyists.

Closely locked into the industrial and commercial as well as the political establishment of the 1980s, Greer is the embodiment of the Westminster hustler. He believes in the potential fire-power of the mobilisation of MPs:

Policy may be 'made' elsewhere (in Whitehall and increasingly in Brussels) and consultants have regular contact with ministers and officials. But once that policy is made it will then need Parliament's assent if it is to be given statutory force. Parliament has the power to throw the policy out or amend it. It is significant that Parliament has proved more willing to use that power at the same time as there has been a growth in the number of consultancies.[61]

It was some time before Greer came to this realisation. Born in 1930, he is the son of a Salvation Army couple. At the age of 24 he joined Conservative Central Office and became the youngest-ever party area agent. In 1966 he left to become director of the Mental Health Trust, where he first developed a taste for dealing with M Ps. He set up a national network to campaign for greater government involvement to combat mental illness. In 1970 he launched his first political con-sultancy company in partnership with John Russell. At first, big business was not interested in their services, preferring to rely on the old-boy network, and early clients were- as diverse as the Zambian High Commission in London and the National Federation of the Self-Employed. In 1976 Greer linked up with an American lobbying company in Washington. This experience left him with an admiration for the openness of the US system, tempered with unease about some of their sharper practices.. In 1980 Russell and Greer split in bitter and acrimonious circumstances. The following January Greer launched his own company.

Ian Greer Associates was a far more politically and commercially orientated operation. Greer had retained his Tory Party connections and was a member of the influential Carlton Club. But he also forged links with the Opposition. Among Labour MPs, Doug Hoyle was a friend, as was Walter Johnson.

Johnson, MP for Derby South from 1970 until 1983, was more than just a social acquaintance. In the early 1980s he helped Greer on several campaigns including one to maintain lead in petrol. This was on behalf of Associated Octel Ltd, who were concerned about the loss of income if lead levels were, reduced by law. Greer agreed to pay the Labour M P a fee for his efforts Over the years. In late 1983, after retiring from Parliament, Johnson wrote in appreciation:

As you will kindly recall, you agreed to pay me a fee of £1,000 for services to your company and that this would be paid in the form of paying a bill for a holiday. I very much regret that I have not been able to help you as much as I would have wished but, as you know, I have always been available if you wanted me, and this position still prevails.

Greer later described this as 'an ex-gratia retirement gift'.[62]

By the mid-19 80s large corporations were finally persuaded that they needed lobbyists and Greer reaped the benefits. Among his new clients were British Airways, Plessey, the Al Fayed brothers through House of Fraser Holdings, the Argyll Group PLC, Babcock International, Phillips and Drew, Johnson Matthey and the National Nuclear Corporation Ltd. Together, they have made Ian Greer Associates the largest independent political consultancy in the UK, with annual earnings of over £18 million and a staff of 30. What is less well-known is that since 1985 Greer has been making secret payments to several MPs who have introduced clients to him.[63]

Greer's cultivation of MPs has been the key to his corporate suc-cess. An invitation list to a drinks party in December 1983 at his offices, then at Buckingham Gate, reveals that eighteen of the forty-two guests were MPs and their wives. Lunch was another favourite, with hired cars collecting M Ps at the Commons and returning them afterwards. Closer links were established when two Tory MPs allowed two Ian Greer Associates employees to work as their 'research assistants', giving them access to Commons facilities and documents.[64]

Ian Greer Associates' closest parliamentary contact is Michael Grylls, Conservative MP for North West Surrey. Greer and Grylls are good friends and have known each other since 1964, when the MP was an unsuccessful candidate in Fulham. According to former executives, Grylls is more to them than just a friendly M P. He sets up meetings and has even signed letters drafted by employees. As chairman of the Conservative Trade and Industry Committee since 1980 he is in regular contact with top industrialists, and is therefore a useful MP for any lobbyist to know. That Grylls was happy to oblige was illustrated by the attendance of Ian Greer at a private meeting of the Tory Trade and Industry Committee in March 1989. Greer's interest was that the visiting speaker was Sir John Clark, chairman of Plessey, which Ian Greer Associates was representing in its epic battle to resist take-over by GE C. Greer's presence at the meeting was noted with some disdain by Conservative M Ps. 'This is the first time in all my years in the House that a lobbyist has attended a back-bench meeting,' said one. 'I regard it as a disturbing commercial intrusion.'[65]

Ian Greer has always maintained that he does not pay MPs as consultants in return for services rendered. In October 1988, he said:

'The company does not retain any peers, MEPs, MPs or other political advisers and has never done so since its formation ... We are not taking that position from a moral point of view, it is just there is no reason to do it.'66

This was technically accurate but undermined by undisclosed ex-gratia fees, as well as the fee to Walter Johnson of £1,000 in 1983. The financial relationship with Michael Grylls was more complex. Since 1979 Grylls has been a paid consultant to the Unitary Tax Campaign (UT C) a group of fifty UK companies lobbying against the way six American states tax the subsidiaries of British firms based in the USA. UTC is, in fact, also a client of Ian Greer Associates, and Grylls and Greer liaise closely on the campaign, together with American lawyer lobbyists. The M P also had the benefit of one of Ian Greer's executives, Andrew Smith, working for him on the account as his research assistant. Grylls has worked hard for the UTC client moving amendments to the Finance Bill, leading delegations to the Treasury, tabling motions and speaking out in debates. He has proved even more useful in securing lucrative clients for Ian Greer Associates. According to Grylls:

On three occasions, friends of mine who were chairmen of companies approached me for help as they said they needed advice. Because I knew how effective Ian Greer Associates were with the Unitary Tax Campaign, I suggested Mr Greer might be able to help them. In each instance, they decided to retain the services of Ian Greer Associates and I was subsequently offered and accepted a one-off payment for these introduc-tions by Mr Greer.67

These payments were made in November 1985, May 1986 and October 1989, based on a percentage of the new client's first-year fee. The first two of these fees were not declared by Grylls. He later said he had disclosed his client relationship with Ian Greer Associates by inserting it in brackets next to his UTC entry in the 1986 and 1987 Register. But on Grylls's own admission the one-off payments 'were not connected with the UT C'. Hence, both the client relation-ship and the commission fees remained hidden and disguised.

This was in breach of the Commons rules. According to Jim Hastings, the Registrar of Members' Interests: 'As a general rule single payments, such as commissions received for introductions or other services, should be registered . . . where such payments relate in any way to membership of the House.'[68] It was not until October 1989 that Grylls's commercial link with Ian Greer Associates was fully declared.

The Surrey MP was not the only one to receive such remuneration. Ian Greer has confirmed that two other MPs have been paid com. mission fees for introducing business — one MP in 1986 and 1988, and another in 1988. None of these payments has been declared.

MPs appear to do very little for their four-figure sums. The operation runs something like this. In the course of their routine work, MPs meet company executives and directors. During the conversation the issue of political public relations may well arise. If the businessman expresses an interest, the MP tells him: 'I happen to know Ian Greer is a good chap and runs a good company. I think he can do an able job for you. If you want to pick up the phone and arrange to meet him, why not?'[69] The MP then approaches Greer: 'Ian, I think I can introduce someone to you who may become a client.'[70] The company, usually the chairman and/or managing director, meets Ian Greer to discuss a possible contract. If the firm becomes a client, Greer contacts the MP and says: 'It was extremely kind of you [to recommend that client]. It is customary to make an introductory fee. We are very happy to do that.'[71] Some MPs refuse the pay-off, but others accept it. The amount of money involved is in some dispute but, according to lobbying sources, it would be between £4.000 and £10,000 depending on the size of the client's account.

One MP who introduces clients to Ian Greer Associates but refuses any payment is Michael Colvin, the Conservative MP for Romsey and Waterside. Colvin has known Ian Greer since 1979. He often visits the office for lunch, where he is briefed by clients. But Colvin is opposed to the introductory fee system: 'As far as Mr Greer is concerned and, you know, kickbacks for MPs, I think it would be very unwise of MPs to accept those sort of payments. I think that's really prostituting their profession.'[72]

Who are the pimps?

'Thank-you' payments are a good example of MPs making money by taking advantage of their status in Parliament. The time-worn excuse that M Ps with consultancies and directorships enrich public life because they are making use of their expertise is redundant in these circumstances.

This is recognised even by MPs with substantial business interests of their own. One senior Conservative MP with several consultancies told me: 'I'm perfectly happy for MPs who have expertise and knowledge to be paid by companies. But when an MP acts as an introductory agent, almost like a marriage broker, for a PR company then I'm less happy about that. I happen to know this goes on with merchant banks and I'm very uneasy about it, I must say.'

Many lobbyists take a stronger view. They argue that M Ps should not be retained in any way by political consultancy firms, and several have a deliberate policy not to do so. Indeed, there are lobbying companies with a blameless record on the payment of MPs, promises to clients and general tactics. They act more like advisers and researchers than lobbyists.

One consultant of the old school is Arthur Butler, joint managing director of Charles Barker, Watney and Powell. He worked with the legendary Commander Powell and described why he is opposed to MPs being on the lobbyists' payroll: 'An MP is employed to support his constituency and party interests. Why should he also be paid large sums of money to speak on behalf of other companies?' [73]


1 Evidence to Select Committee on Members' Interests, HC 51 8-vi, p. 85.

4 Financial Times, 23 December 1985.

3 The Times, 12 July 1988.

4 Speaker Clifton-Brown, House of Commons, Hansard, 13 December 1949, cols. 2519-2O.

5 House of Commons, Hansard, 12 December 1949 col. 2353, 5 December 1949, col. 1535.

6 Campaign, 14 March 1969.

7 Francis Noel-Baker, 'The Grey Zone: The Problems of Business Affiliations of Members of Parliament', Parliamentary Affairs, vol. 15, 1961-2.

8 Andrew Roth, publisher and editor of 'Parliamentary Profiles'..

9 Sunday Times, 6 October 1968; see also Alan Doig, Corruption and Misconduct, p. 215

10 Yorkshire Post, 2 July 1976.

11 Ibid.

12 Schlozman and Tierney, 1986, p. 261 Quoted in Grant Jordan, The Commercial Lobbyists, p. 1.

13 Reader's Digest, January 1989.

14 Select Committee on Members' Interests, HC 44-x, p. 257.

15 Lloyd-Hughes Associates company profile, 1981.

16 Ibid.

17 Ibid.

18 Schlozman and Tierney, 1986, p. 294. Quoted in Grant Jordan, The Commercial Lobbyists, p. 24.

19 Alan Doig, Westminster Babylon, p. 307.

20 The Economist, 5 March 1988

21 Observer, 15 November 1987.

22 Sunday Telegraph, 17 March 1985.

23 Observer, 1 July 1984.

24 Register of Members' Interests, 14 January 1991.

25 Rob Baggott, Alcohol, Politics and Social Policy, pp. 67—8.

26 Letter to Labour Research, July 1984.

27 Ibid.

28 Ibid.

29 World In Action, Granada TV, 15 January 1990.

30 Evidence to Select Committee on Members' Interests, HC 44-vii.

31 TV Eye, Thames TV, z6 April 1984.

32 Evidence to Select Committee on Members' Interests, HC 44-vii, p. 202.

33 Ibid., p. 198.

34 Ibid., p. 197.

35 Ibid., p. 203.

36 Ibid., pp. 198, 200.

37 Evidence to Select Committee on Members' Interests, HG 44-viii, p.217.

38 TV Eye, Thames TV, 26 April 1984.

39 Select Committee on Members' Interests, HG 44-viii, p. 225

40 Independent, 13 April 1987.

41 Select Committee on Members' Interests, HG 44-viii, p. 218

42 Ibid., p. 216

43 House of Commons, Hansard, 9 April 1987, col. 450.

44 Select Committee on Members' Interests, HC 44-viii, p. 220.

45 Ibid., p. 219.

46 Ibid., p. 218

47 Sunday Times, 2 October 1983.

48 Newsnight, BBC TV, 9 December 1985.

49 Ibid.

50 Guardian, 13 September 1985

51 Newsnight, BBC TV, 9 December 1985.

52 Ibid.

53 Ibid.

54 Ibid.

55 Ibid.

56 Observer, 15 December 1985.

57 PR Week, 1 February 1990.

58 Independent on Sunday, 11 March 1990.

59 PR Week, i February 1990.

60 Newsnight, BBC TV, 9 December 1985.

61 Grant Jordan, ed., The Commercial Lobbyists, p. 56

62 TV Eye, Thames TV, z6 April 1984.

63 Evidence to Select Committee on Members' Interests, HC 389-1

64 TV Eye, Thames TV, 2.6 April 1984.

65 Observer, 9 April 1989.

66 Evidence to Select Committee on Members' Interests, HC 518-vi, p. 10.

67 Evidence to Select Committee on Members' Interests, HC 561, p. viii.

68 Letter to Select Committee on Members' Interests, HC 389-i.

69 Evidence by Ian Greer to Select Committee on Members' Interests, HC 389-i, p. 3.

70 Ibid., p. 4.

71 Ibid., p. 1.

72 Independent on Sunday, 27 May 1990.

73 PR Week, 22. October 1988.

Biographical Note

Mark Hollingsworth is an investigative journalist who is also the author of Thatcher's Fortunes - The Life and Times of Mark Thatcher (with Paul Halloran, Mainstream, 2005) and Saudi Babylon - Torture, Corruption and Cover-up Inside the House of Saud (with Sandy Mitchell, Mainstream, 2005) Among his other books are The Ultimate Spin Doctor: Life and Fast Times of Tim Bell (Coronet Books, 1997).