Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Politicians for hire

It's Sir John Butterfill I felt sorry for. He really wanted that job. He'd brought along his CV and everything. He was delighted to confide how he was "one of the four original people" who had persuaded David Cameron to stand for the Conservative leadership - and, in what he thought must have been the deal-maker, he let slip that he'd been given the nod for a peerage in the next honours list. Of course, he added, you can never be certain about such things. Indeed you can't, John. Indeed you can't.

Then there was Geoff Hoon, who told the girl from the fictional lobbying firm "Anderson Perry" - great name, by the way, even if the website left something to be desired - that he was relishing the opportunity to use his ministerial experience, "bluntly", to make money. He thought (in one of several spectacular revelations in last night's Dispatches documentary that have been overshadowed by the sleaze story) that his skills and contacts would be of especial interest to American firms on the lookout to buy out struggling European defence contractors. None were named, but you got the impression that there were unlikely to be any independent manufacturers of defence equipment left in Europe in a few years' time as governments slashed their budgets. That's potentially a huge story.

Patricia Hewitt's lucid explanation of how big business gets to bend ministerial ears ought really to form part of the new citizenship curriculum. She explained how she used, "cheerfully", to attend corporate jollies in the good old days of Tony Blair - it was a good way of getting to know people - but Gordon rather frowned on that sort of thing. So now you had to be more subtle. A good tip was to sponsor a seminar at some fashionable think-tank, like Demos, and invite a minister along. Having set an appropriately intellectual tone, it should be easy to arrange to be sitting next to the minister at the lunch table. You're paying for it, after all. Sponsoring events at party conferences was also a good wheeze, she explained. She also talked about how useful it was to cultivate special advisers.

Hewitt explained that she might have a couple of days free a month for "something major", if the price was right. By my calculations that would bring her monthly obligations somewhere between a week and ten days. Stephen Byers, who offered to introduce Anderson Perry's clients to his close friend Tony Blair, was even more forthcoming. His boasts about bringing about changes in government regulations at the behest of Tesco, and coming to a murky agreement with Lord Adonis about terminating a rail franchise have caused the most embarrassment to his former colleagues. His defence seems to be that he was lying in what he thought was a job interview. It was certainly a shameless performance, what with his description of himself as a "cab for hire". What particularly intrigued me, though, was his tip that the best time for business to influence planned laws and regulations was during an election campaign, when the politicians were otherwise engaged and civil servants had Whitehall to themselves. The clear implication was that a new government would rubber-stamp almost anything their officials put in front of them.

The politicians caught on camera may have been slightly more careless, or greedy, than their colleagues. The worst was probably Margaret Moran, who has been (so far as her constituents are concerned) on an extended sickie but who seemed full of energy and enthusiasm when she saw pound signs in front of her eyes. But was their behaviour that unusual? Jack Straw, interviewed on this morning's Today programme, didn't seem to think so. While the ex-cabinet ministers had been suspended, he stressed heavily, for bringing the Labour Party into disrepute, their main offence would seem to have been stupidity. They were "suckered into a sting". In other words, they got caught. Had Anderson Perry been what it appeared to be, and actually was in the business of handing out wads of cash to politicians and ex-ministers in exchange for influence over government policy, then everything would have been hunky-dory. After all, no-one, least of all the Labour Party, would have been brought into disrepute.

It's possible to have a smidgen of sympathy for Jack Straw, who's walking a very fine line. On the one hand, he knows perfectly well that the trading of ministerial experience for cash is part of the deal for politicians. The difference between Stephen Byers' money-grubbing and Tony Blair's is merely one of degree: in politics, as in Hollywood, the really big bucks go to a handful of leading players. Byers, Hoon and the rest will soon have done their public service and will have to make their way in the real world. They have connections. Without being able to exploit them, they would probably be unemployable. On the other hand, of course, the public can't be expected to see it that way. We elect, and pay, politicians to serve our interests, not to build up a portfolio of useful contacts for afterwards.

That these retiring MPs fell for Channel 4's sting - and their comments during the covertly filmed interviews - shows that what "Anderson Perry" was offering was neither exceptional nor surprising. The programme demonstrated an age-old truth - not that these particular politicians were corrupt, but that money buys influence. On election day, all voters are equal. At all other times, money talks. It shouldn't take an undercover film crew to bring this home to people. Just look, for example, at the Digital Economy Bill, sections of which owe their entire existence to lobbying by record companies. It could have a devastating impact on Britain's ability to compete in the digital age. The proposal to disconnect households suspected of harbouring illegal downloaders - otherwise known as "teenagers" - sits oddly with Gordon Brown's claims in a speech yesterday about the paramount importance of unfettered access to the internet - not only as a human right, but as the basis of the government-citizen relationship. That's the power of lobbying.

So long as policies, laws and regulations can be formulated behind closed doors, with minimal (and mostly symbolic) public consultation and then whipped through a pliant Parliament, there will be lobbyists looking for politicians and ex-politicians to hire. The system benefits everyone concerned, except the general public, so it's somewhat naive to imagine that tightening up a few rules or offering up as token sacrifices a few politicians who get caught on camera will change much. Last night's Dispatches was compulsive, sometimes hilarious, viewing, but in stressing the venality of their victims the producers missed the real story.

Speaking, as they thought, off the record, Hewitt, Hoon, Byers, Butterfill and the rest offered a rare and candid insight into the way politics actually works in this country (and probably most others). Their descriptions were genuinely enlightening. They were not breaking any rules nor, as they saw it, being corrupt. If their activities seem questionable then it is the system, not these politicians, that has to change.