David Singleton: Reflections on a decade with the cream of UK lobbying

Written by David Singleton on 8 March 2019 in Opinion

On good lobbying, bad lobbying - and the top five most influential figures in UK public affairs.

“Where are you? Your industry needs you!” stated the text message that came in from a lobbying agency boss as I reclined on a sun lounger in Bali in 2013.

While I was on honeymoon, Tory MP Patrick Mercer had been targeted by an undercover investigation conducted by The Daily Telegraph and the BBC’s Panorama programme. It disclosed that he had tabled parliamentary questions and motions after being paid thousands by undercover journalists posing as lobbyists and claiming to have interests in Fiji. It was the latest lobbying scandal with no lobbyists chipping away at the reputation of public affairs.

Somehow, I resisted the temptation to get the first flight out of Indonesia and bat for the industry. As I soaked up the sun, a few exasperated figures set about trying to educate the public about lobbying. As our coverage in the magazine made clear, it wasn’t the first time that this had happened.

Real lobbying scandals do happen occasionally. In 2017, Bell Pottinger was rightly kicked out of the PRCA and then went into administration amid revelations that it campaigned for the continued “existence of economic apartheid” in South Africa, on the payroll of the billionaire Gupta family, to keep President Jacob Zuma and his family in power. While London-based boss Tim Bell was not directly involved in the South African campaign, you could argue that he created the corporate climate in which it prospered. "“Morality is a job for priests, not PR men," the former Margaret Thatcher adviser once deadpanned in an interview. But unless you count Liam Fox’s mate Adam Werrity as a lobbyist, you have to go back a bit further to find a 100% UK-based scandal.

In fact, the last time a homegrown public affairs operator took centre stage in a big lobbying scandal was back in 1998 when Peter Mandelson’s former aide Derek Draper hit the front pages. “There are 17 people that count. To say that I am intimate with every one of them is the understatement of the century,” he told an undercover reporter. At the time, in the salad days of Tony Blair’s premiership, Draper was director at now-defunct lobbying firm GPC Market Access. Also caught out was New Labour lobbying agency LLM, whose boss said they could “reach anyone. We can go to Gordon Brown if we have to”.

The first big so-called lobbying scandal to occur in my time covering the public affairs industry was served up by a politician. In 2010, former transport secretary Stephen Byers got caught saying that he was “like a cab for hire” and would ask for up to £5,000 a day to provide advisory services to companies. A couple of years later, The Sunday Times had the ‘generals for hire’ story which skewered Lord Dannat and General John Kiszely, who managed to sound even more shifty than Byers. Speaking to reporters posing as representatives of a South Korean weapons manufacturer, the general boasted of his links to a defence minister: “Andrew Rowbotham… shared a house with my wife at Cambridge. I keep reminding him of it."

More recently, when Jack Straw and Malcolm Rifkind were secretly filmed by the Daily Telegraph and Channel 4's Dispatches apparently offering their services to a private company for cash, PRCA director general Francis Ingham had understandably had enough of politicians giving public affairs a bad name. "Yet again, a lobbying scandal involving no lobbyists whatsoever, just has-been MPs and persuasive undercover journalists,” he told me. "I hope that MPs will not revert to type, and attempt to use the lobbying industry as an air raid shelter to protect themselves."

I’m not sure that Ingham’s wish ever got granted, but having spent over a decade in the company of senior public affairs consultants I can confidently say that the powerfully-connected dodgy master lobbyist pulling the strings of politicians is something of a popular exaggeration. These days, serious consultants know they have to base their case on evidence if they want to get through the door of an MP, special adviser or civil servant. But that’s not to say that all public affairs operators are boringly well-behaved beacons of propriety.

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I always admired the chutzpah of the chap who would ensure he got a good table for the two of us at Nobu by booking for three and then getting ‘stood up’ at the last minute. “I think we’ll start without him,” he would tell waiters on a regular basis. A less smooth operator would be the wine-guzzling top lobbyist who is well known by former colleagues for vomiting into his briefcase in the middle of the office after a particularly good lunch.

The lobbyist who has set the most stall on the power of alcohol in recent times is probably the veteran Tory operator Kevin Bell. A few years ago, he complained to me that public affairs had become too cheap and too commoditised. “We don’t do cheap. I like Bollinger. Anybody who comes to my flat knows I like Bollinger,” he told me, after lunch at The Ivy. Do clients appreciate that, I asked. “The amount they consume, they seem to,” he shot back.

Another fan of fine wine is industry doyen (and Shepherd’s restaurant proprietor) Lionel Zetter, who ran the 2018 London Marathon in aid of WhizzKidz raising more than £2,000 for the charity. With just over a week to go, the lobbying supremo told me: “My training regime consists of lots of Sancerre (and the occasional gin and tonic) and Shepherd's pie.” After finishing in six hours 26 minutes, Zetter said he “really struggled” in the heat and the Sancerre was "certainly a contributory factor” to his slower-than-expected time.

Zetter is believed to hold the title for longest ever lobbying lunch but it is the gregarious Tory lobbyist Peter Bingle who is widely known as the industry’s most voracious luncher. “I have lunch once a day,” he once told me. I asked whether that meant he goes to a restaurant every day. “Over the past 20 years I've sustained the London restaurant industry and they're very grateful to me,” he replied. “For every client, every person you deal with, you know the restaurant they like, the food they like, the wine they like, the ambience. That's part of what we do. If you can understand that people need to feel comfortable, at home and relaxed, that's how it works.”

Of course, it’s not an approach that everyone buys into. When I interviewed Tory lobbyist Malcolm Gooderham some years ago, I wanted to know whether he considered himself to be a hard worker. He answered with a mischievous glint in his eye. “I tend to get in around 11am, have a long lunch, then slack off around five. Then I hang around with a few old-hat hack types, tell them how amazing I am, and how many people I know in the industry, and then go home.”

I can’t think who he was mocking with his answer. Nevertheless, I’m delighted to confirm that booze-fuelled lunches are still something that the lobbying industry does well when it’s called for. Whether any serious lobbying takes place at Shepherd’s restaurant or The Ivy Club is another question entirely.

I’m reliably informed that in the early days of lobbying, lunches were more important. In the 1990s, the public affairs consultant was generally seen as a political fixer or an intermediary between politicians and businesses. So the restaurants of Westminster were an obvious place to do business. “That probably never was a good model and certainly now it’s a model that has been – or at least should have been - consigned to the dustbin of history,” Brunswick public affairs chief and industry supremo Jon McLeod tells me.

So if lobbyists are not all acting as political fixers in the restaurants and watering holes of SW1, what are they up to? The more mundane truth is that most public affairs consultancy is about working with organisations to understand their issues, refine their messaging, advise on process, develop persuasive arguments and build campaigns that cut through. “The truly effective model is about developing an integrated campaign,” says McLeod. “That could involve elements of making political arrangements or gaining political intelligence. But they are not the objective in their own right. They are just a function of the fact that you’re trying to do something larger for the client. And that’s a very significant change.”

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As well as getting accused of chucking cash at politicians and spending too much time in restaurants, another charge frequently levelled at lobbyists is that they are mainly helping ethically questionable clients with deep pockets. I’m sure it’s a valid attack in some cases. Over the years I’ve heard of various secretive one-man band operators who once worked at Tory HQ and now seem to specialise in dodgy lobbying assignments that they don’t want to talk about.

But most mainstream UK lobbying agencies have nothing to hide and plenty to be proud of. They include PLMR, which was set up by Labour lobbyist Kevin Craig in 2006 and has donated 5% of net profit to charitable causes every year since. PLMR has earned a reputation as one of the sector’s more ethical agencies by delivering on issues ranging from plain packaging for cigarettes, while working for Cancer Research UK, through to better infant nutrition, while working for Ella’s Kitchen.

Most recently, the agency pushed through a change to government guidelines which means that leftover food will be used to make affordable meals. The change was secured for The Company Shop which works by taking surplus food, drink and household items from manufacturers and retailers, which may otherwise have needlessly gone to waste, and redistributing the stock through their discounted member-only superstores. PLMR took on a brief to ensure that this redistribution business model was included in Defra’s new Food Waste Hierarchy which sets out the official guidelines on how to deal with surplus stock. After PLMR’s lobbying campaign, the new guidelines announced in late 2018 now include redistribution as a preferable option to food being inefficiently converted to electricity or sent to landfill. The agency says it achieved this change through “effective engagement with civil servants, select committee members and ministerial teams, reinforced by positive media coverage”.

Another agency with a proud environmental track record is Higginson Strategy, run by former lobby journalists John and Clodagh Higginson. Their client A Plastic Planet wants to dramatically reduce the use of plastic and Higginson Strategy has helped the organisation to get legislative change, most notably in the shape of a public consultation on a tax on virgin plastic that was announced in the last Budget. “For A Plastic Planet we first set out to show there was a problem and that people gave a shit about the problem by creating a deep and wide network of support from scientists, academics, health experts, politicians, business leaders and environmental campaigners,” John tells me. “Then we pressed for legislative change through lobbying of the various departments involved… Our next big lobbying pushes will be on the spending on global biodiversity and countering climate change and female empowerment. We still have a way to go on plastic but I feel that the biggest win for us on plastics has been the behaviour change. I love it that plastic straws are now seen as socially unacceptable.”

Lodestone Communications, led by the experienced Labour public affairs man David Wild, has been lobbying for Learning Disability Voices, a coalition representing providers of support services for people with learning disabilities. The sector faced a funding crisis over sleep-in pay (hours that carers spend asleep at the homes of patients) so the agency conceived and managed a #SolveSleepIns campaign with activities including a lobby of parliament, where over 40 MPs met with representatives from the sector. Lodestone director Fran O’Leary tells me: “Our strategy was committed to amplifying the voices of those who were directly affected by this issue – people with disabilities. We understood that we needed to tell stories that humanised the issue and trumpeted the serious damage that threatened the care sector.”

Meanwhile Connect, the lobbying firm led by former Labour MP Andy Sawford, scored a major win for their client Resolution, with a successful campaign for the introduction of ‘no fault’ divorce to create a more constructive environment for couples when marriages come to an end. The agency kicked off their campaign to secure cross-party support for the change with a lobby day featuring 150 lawyers convening in parliament and followed up with a media contact programme and the parliamentary launch of an authoritative academic paper. When the Government launched a consultation in September 2018, former Resolution chair Nigel Shepherd put Connect’s lobbying offensive in context. “This will be a landmark move for divorce law in the UK, and for many in the sector will complete more than 25 years of campaigning effort.”

These are all examples of what you might call the less-known side of lobbying: public affairs agencies contributing to effective policy making for public good. They tend to do so by highlighting specific areas of legislation that may not be operating effectively, ensuring all sides of an issue are heard, amplifying the voices of those with concerns, ensuring that policy makers are aware of the implications of their work and making sure that better public policy is developed in collaboration with the people who are experts in their sectors.

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Of course, some of the bigger agencies are less transparent than others. Firmly on the secretive side is Global Counsel, set up in 2010 by Peter Mandelson and his former aide Benjamin Wegg-Prosser. Unlike most agencies it does not publish a client list and in 2012 it was reported that Mandelson had sidestepped a requirement for peers to disclose certain business clients after exploiting a loophole in the system. Also on the naughty step are Crosby Textor, Media Intelligence Partners and Tulchan Communications.

David Cameron may have once expressed concern about secretive lobbying by these types of agencies but his colleagues are clearly more relaxed about it. The current prime minister’s director of research and messaging recently joined Global Counsel as lead for UK politics and policy. The Conservatives reportedly forked out £4m on Crosby Textor to help them lose the last election and they have long enjoyed a close relationship with Media Intelligence Partners, headed up by former Tory communications chief Nick Wood. At Tulchan, the public affairs offer is headed up by Andrew Feldman, the Tory peer who also happens to be former Conservative Party chairman and Cameron’s old tennis partner.

When lobbying firms such as those favoured by senior Conservatives refuse to list their clients they invite understandable suspicion about what they are up to. But the truth is that most mainstream agencies are signed up to the PRCA public affairs register and are happy to talk about what they do.

For my money, the five most influential agency operators these days are all at reputable mainstream lobbying firms. Portland boss Tim Allan has to be in there given that he heads up what is often seen as the UK’s biggest and best agency. Allan (aka Alastair Campbell’s former deputy) wisely rebranded Portland from a New Labour outfit to a Tory-friendly one in the dying days of the Gordon Brown government and hasn’t looked back since. “I don’t think clients hiring Portland did so because they thought I would get on the phone to Tony Blair for them. That was never the case and clients never thought it was the case,” he told me back in 2009. To hammer the point home, around the same time he hired various Conservative operators such as Charlotte Leslie and George Eustice, who both became Tory MPs.

Snapping at Allan’s heels for the title of most influential lobbyist of recent years are Hanover boss and top Tory operator Charles Lewington and super-sharp Weber Shandwick-turned- Brunswick public affairs chief Jon McLeod. Also firmly in the mix is Graham McMillan, the sagacious former Fishburn Hedges operator who set up and sold Open Road and now heads up public affairs for Teneo Blue Rubicon. The latest entrant to the exclusive club is Iain Anderson, the charismatic boss of fast-growing Cicero Group who is also the only public affairs chief to have made an appearance on the BBC’s Question Time in recent years.

Allan, Lewington, McLeod, McMillan and Anderson are the leading lights in an industry that has professionalised at pace in recent years. Of course, challenges still remain. Lobbying still has an image problem and it hasn’t escaped me that the vast majority of my pals in public affairs are white men. For much of my time covering the industry, Gill Morris had a strong claim on the title of 'queen of lobbying'. It's fair to say that the effervescent founder of Connect Public Affairs never faced a lot of competition. Likewise John Lehal, the astute Labour lobbyist who set up and sold Insight Public Affairs, has often been the only public affairs professional from a BME background in the room. Indeed few in the industry would deny that there is some way to go on diversity. As Jon McLeod once told me: “We can’t just have dragoons of young men in crumpled suits smelling of last night’s nightclub doing public affairs. We’ve got to have a real variety, because then you get insight, you get a bit of tension in the debate about how you support clients, you get richer advice.”

But having spent over a decade with the cream of the industry, it strikes me that most mainstream public affairs professionals are committed to positive change, lobbying in a transparent manner and trying to get policy reshaped for the public good.  Lobbying scandals might occasionally involve a rogue lobbyist. Lunches may sometimes go on for a few hours and there will always be someone who is willing to fight for a dubious cause. But my sense is that the good lobbying outweighs the bad. Or as Lionel Zetter once put it. "There is good lobbying and bad lobbying, just like there is good sex and bad sex, but I think most of us would prefer to have bad sex rather than no sex at all.”

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