Notes on a Scandal

What lessons can we learn from the latest lobbying scandal to hit Parliament?

The week began with news of the latest lobbying scandal to hit Parliament. Except, of course, that the scandal involved exactly zero lobbyists, in keeping with the vast majority of lobbying scandals trumpeted by the press.

The combined Dispatches/Telegraph investigation entrapped two long-serving and distinguished MPs – Jack Straw and Sir Malcolm Rifkind – into promising a fictitious Chinese company to use their influence to further its business interests in return for pay.

For Jack Straw, a highly distinguished political career has been blemished. In Sir Malcolm’s case, a 40-year political career was brought to an end earlier than intended, and not on the terms anyone envisaged.

So what does this latest scandal tell us about the state of parliamentarians, the public and the public affairs industry as we head towards the General Election? There are three lessons worth considering:

1. Parliamentarians have not recovered after the expenses scandal

The fact that it was in part the Daily Telegraph (despite its own recent brush with scandal) leading this sting clearly cowed many MPs from finding their voice on the matter. They all recall how well the paper used the material from the expenses saga to prolong the pain and do maximum damage.

While the British political mood rarely moves from out and out cynicism, the ‘they’re all only in it for what they can get’ theme had been subdued in recent months. In part, one assumes, because we have been in danger of focusing on actual policies and the political difference between the parties.

But it clearly doesn’t take much more than a whiff of scandal for Westminster to go into panic mode and close ranks. Few MPs rose to the defence of their colleagues and there was a clear desire to move quickly away from this lest the collateral damage become too great.

2. The British public’s expectations of the role of MPs is inconsistent and is setting them up to fail

As with the expenses scandal several commentators (although few MPs) picked up on the issue of MPs’ pay, triggered by Sir Malcolm’s comments that he could not be expected to live on £60,000 a year. Dan Hodges’ piece on the issue sets out why he believes the best way to prevent future cash for access scandals is to ‘whack up MP’s pay to £150,000′ and say no more outside interests.

We have been here before and it won’t happen. Following the expenses scandal, an independent body, IPSA, was set up to determine MPs’ pay which is what everyone – from the press to MPs and the public – said they wanted. But when it determined that MPs should be given a pay increase there was outrage and the raise was abandoned.

The inconsistency appears again when considering the case of outside business interests. Tom Watson MP was quick to take to the airwaves to say that MPs should be banned from having second jobs and this theme came to dominate PMQs.

Labour clearly saw the political opportunity to make the Conservative’s uncomfortable but their opportunism leads to an important question: should MPs be fulltime, with no time for outside interests? Cameron’s response – that a Parliament with practising doctors, dentists and those running family business was necessarily a richer one seems like the right answer. One of the criticisms of modern-day Westminster is the rise of the professional politician flitting from thinktank to spad to MP. Having only ever lived and performed in the Westminster bubble, so the narrative goes, these people have no understanding of the problems of ‘real people’. But should they have a successful career and business interests outside of Parliament, they will be more susceptible to business lobbying and put profits ahead of people.

The arguments are simplified but not by much. They are damned if they do, damned if they don’t. Why would anyone want to be an MP?

3. The media and political narrative on lobbying focuses on an industry that doesn’t really exist

That is not to say that there is no such thing as a lobbyist. Of course there is.

Yes, this is a lobbying scandal without a lobbyist anywhere in sight. While we can congratulate ourselves about that and our industry’s approach to ethics, the perception that lobbying is a distasteful practice persists. So as an industry we must continue to make the case that lobbying plays an important role in healthy, functioning democracies and in developing better policy. As those in the industry know, with the lead of organisations like the PRCA and APPC, lobbyists have long been in favour of transparency – and tougher regulation than that proposed by the Government.

But we are not helped by the Government’s own definition of lobbying, with the coming register implying that lobbying can only really take place between a consultant and a minister or permanent secretary. It is this thinking that leads journalists to masquerade as ‘lobbyists’ and offer elder statesmen cash for access. That is not how influence works, and only someone who wilfully chooses to ignore the subtleties and safeguards of the democratic process would think it does. Quite frankly, if it were that simple, we’d be out of a job.

The thread uniting these three lessons is our tendency as a society to fall back on lazy narratives to make sense of the world – from ‘snouts in the trough’ to dark, smoke-filled rooms where the real decisions are made. The reality is of course more complex, more nuanced and more… real. Six years on from the expenses scandal, 17 years after Derek Draper and Lobbygate, it doesn’t feel like we have moved very far.