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Blame displacement

I had a pop at the Spectator the other day for what I see as their lazy thinking about lobbying, but to be fair to them, they are right in the thick of what is becoming conventional wisdom: that lobbyists somehow need dealing with because of the Adam Werrity affair.

I find the whole thing completely bizarre. The Times reports today that “Sir Gus [O’Donnell] said in his report that Mr. Werrity was not a lobbyist.” And yet the rulebook being thrown is aimed… at lobbyists.

Imagine that you are the Secretary of State for something, and your mate, who isn’t an accountant, helps you with your tax return which you then submit with errors. These errors are not quite so big as to be deemed to be fraud, but for a lot of people, they don’t seem far off. When you are caught out, the Government decides that the solution to the issue is to regulate accountants more tightly.

I accept that the analogy isn’t perfect: you have to qualify as an accountant, so it is very clear who is one and who isn’t. The Government’s view that Adam Werrity was not a lobbyist is moot: personally, I don’t think he can be described as one, given that he has only been able to lobby one person (his best mate) and does not appear to do what I would understand by the term, which is basically PR in Westminster. But I accept that it is arguable, on the basis that he derived income from seeking to influence policy. But that debate aside, the Government’s own report has taken the view that he isn’t one. So where is the sense in changing the rules for people who are.

When someone breaks the law, the rules don’t suddenly change for everyone else: the problem is not seen to be the law, but the person who broke it. And yet when Liam Fox breaks the Ministerial code, and his mate breaks the accepted rules of conduct, those rules have to change for everyone else, wrapping up organisations in red tape which can ill-afford unnecessary costs. The lack of judgment in this case has quite clearly been Liam Fox’s, and yet as if to deflect attention away from that most obvious of facts, the Government talks about “cracking down” on an industry. The result will be less transparency, not more. People (and small companies) who help small companies get their voice heard will stop doing so; small companies will either have to hire in-house (which they can’t afford to do) or stop offering a view on issues which affect them; and people in politics will live in even more of a bubble than they do already.

The extent to which it is evident that the rules that need changing are rules for Ministers is made clear to me by this e-mail I received yesterday, in relation to David Cameron placing restrictions on Ministers having a sufficient number of special advisers:

I had a most odd breakfast in January with an old friend, a senior minister of state and probably a shoo-in for the Cabinet next time, asking me if I could become his consigliore – a sort of semi-unofficial adviser with access to papers etc who would help him ‘beat Whitehall’, in his words. I pointed out there may be conflicts, in that I still do (some) work as a lobbyist, but he blithely dismissed my concerns saying I should be flattered etc etc. Anyway, I felt very uncomfortable with the whole idea and let the matter rest. I would have worked for him formally as his SpAD – would still do so – and it would be fun but it all needs to be above board.

Who needs to be subject to stricter codes here: the person who made the approach, or the person who declined it?

Posted in My articles, Politics.

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