There will be scandals like this for as long as our system of political party funding continues unreformed, argues Gavin Devine.
Another day, another lobbying scandal? You would have thought so if you listened to the Conservative spokespeople hitting the airwaves yesterday. Their diagnoses and remedies were comfortingly familiar: "This was just boasting; there would have been other checks. Anyway, this is a problem for all parties. This government is the first to publish details of meetings between outside interests and ministers.’ And above all: "we need to get on and introduce the proposed register for lobbyists as soon as we can."
Let’s deal with those points in turn. At least one is true: this is a problem for all parties. There will be scandals like this for as long as our system of political party funding continues unreformed, and for as long as our parties depend on the generosity of a few rich individuals or organisations.
And it is true that the government has been a little more open about who has met whom (though it was embarrassingly unclear to some sent out to bat for the Tories whether the ‘transparency’ register is published quarterly or annually). But the issue of private meetings, brought to prominence by the dinner attended by the Communities Secretary last year refuses to go away – and as a line of defence it is very poor, as David Cameron is finding today. Until ministers are willing to declare the name of everyone they meet, ever, there will be black spots in this ‘openness’. And in any case, what of party functionaries like Peter Cruddas? Where is he covered?
And finally, the government’s proposed lobbying register. Arguing that it would be in any way relevant is fatuous. First, there can be little certainty that Sarah Southern, as a sole trader with little apparent relationship with the rest of the lobbying industry, would even have been registered. Second, if she had been, it would have made the situation worse, not better. As I’ve argued before, without statutory regulation alongside registration, ‘lobbyists’ like Sarah Southern would gain a badge of respectability by registering without any obligation to behave ethically.
So what are we left with? Another lobbying scandal involving no professional lobbyists. A media apparently determined to prove that politics is a sleazy waste of time and/or to make it nearly impossible for politicians ever to meet anyone from the outside world. And a political class striking out at obvious, easy, targets (lobbying) when they should be looking at themselves, at the way they are funded, and at the shallowness of their commitment to openness and transparency. In other words: a truly depressing mix.
Gavin Devine is chief operating officer of MHP Communications.
See also my article for Total Politics.