Comment: We’re into new territory – the cosy corporate lobbying club

David Cameron said pre-election that the next big scandal would be secret corporate lobbying. Turns out he was right.

By Tamasin Cave

David Cameron's refusal to deny that he has discussed details of Murdoch's bid for the rest of BSkyB with his friends in News International moves the scandal into new territory.

If it wasn't apparent before, this is now also a story about lobbying. While phone-hacking and alleged police corruption are undoubtedly more awful, and must be tackled, the consequences of unrestrained political influence are potentially much more serious.

On Wednesday the prime minister repeatedly stressed he 'never had one inappropriate conversation' with anyone in the Murdoch empire over the deal. He was at pains to explain that he had completely taken himself out of any decision-making about the bid.

But how credible is this account? Is this really how lobbying works, with constraints put on friendly relationships, and barriers erected between ministerial colleagues and friends of ministerial colleagues?

Not according to Cameron.

"We all know how it works," he confidently said in a speech on lobbying ahead of the general election: "The lunches, the hospitality, the quiet word in your ear."

With seer-like powers, Cameron predicted in February last year that "secret corporate lobbying" was "the next big scandal waiting to happen". I suspect at the time he didn't picture himself at the centre of it.

From the comfortable position of leader of the opposition, he said: "We don't know whether any favours are being exchanged. We don't know which outside interests are wielding unhealthy influence.

"This isn't a minor issue with minor consequences," he added. "Commercial interests worth hundreds of billions of pounds are potentially at stake."

Cue the BSkyB deal.

"Secret corporate lobbying is why people are so fed up with politics," he concluded. "It arouses people's worst fears and suspicions about how our political system works, with money buying power, power fishing for money and a cosy club at the top making decisions in their own interest."

It's this cosy club that has now been dramatically exposed.

Cameron's pre-election speech, though, was designed to give us hope. He pledged that the Conservatives "must be the party that sorts all this out."

Before you snigger, they did make a bold first step. In a concession to the Lib Dems, the coalition agreement included a commitment to introduce a statutory register of lobbyists. Done properly, this would require, for instance, News Corp to make public the extent of its lobbying over the BSkyB bid. With a robust register of lobbyists, we wouldn't need to rely on Cameron to reveal who met whom about what.

And yet the policy is currently nowhere, stuck in a pre-consultation phase in the Cabinet Office. The Lib Dems have fallen silent on the issue and more worryingly, reports suggest that the lobbying industry has been asked to come up with a blueprint for it. Given their fierce opposition so far to such a measure, this would be a disaster for transparency.

The current scandal gives us an all-too-rare glimpse into the UK's networks of power. If we're to have sustained public scrutiny of dominant interests like News Corp, a statutory register of lobbyists – as promised by Cameron and Clegg – is a solid starting point.

Without doubt opponents of a register have been having a 'quiet word in the ear'. Our political leaders now need to stop listening and get on with it.

Tamasin Cave is part of the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency.

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