April 8, 2021

The Westminster village is not one world, but two. The first is the land-of-the-living — a flourishing, fractious eco-system of politicians, civil servants, journalists and their various support staff. But then there’s the other world, which the living would rather keep quiet about.

I used to work in the House of Commons — occasionally late into the evening. The empty, darkened corridors gave me the creeps, but I never saw anything too unusual. Metaphorically though, the place is full of ghosts. You try not to look, but they’re always there. Waiting. Whispering. Reaching out.

Like the unquiet spirit of Cathy Earnshaw, they’re forever tapping at the window. Worst of all is when they bear the faces of the departed: former colleagues, ex-MPs, past Prime Ministers, even. They’re not actually dead, of course, but they have gone over to the “other side”, from politics to  — shudder — public affairs.

The latest spectre to haunt the corridors of power is a very familiar face: David Cameron. I almost feel sorry for the guy. For the second time in his career, he’s become the symbol of a systemic failure.

The first time was Brexit, of course — but now there’s something else that won’t go away: a lobbying scandal.

To blame one individual for these outcomes is to ignore the guilt of the entire political establishment. And yet, on both occasions, Cameron has practically demanded the role of bogeyman.

In respect to Brexit, he was the one who called the referendum. In respect to lobbying, no contemporary politician has done more to define it as an issue of concern. He didn’t just give a speech on the subject, but the speech. It was in 2010, shortly before he became Prime Minister, when he condemned the “far-too-cosy relationship between politics, government, business and money”. He was crystal clear as to what he meant by this:

“I’m talking about lobbying – and we all know how it works. The lunches, the hospitality, the quiet word in your ear, the ex-ministers and ex-advisors for hire, helping big business find the right way to get its way. In this party, we believe in competition, not cronyism. We believe in market economics, not crony capitalism.”

Having spent several years as a speechwriter, I can tell you that politicians don’t always write their own speeches; but you’d think that Cameron might have noticed what he was saying when he said it. To warn about the “next big scandal waiting to happen” and then become that scandal takes a special kind of insouciance.

To be clear, there’s no evidence that he’s broken any law. However, his speech wasn’t about what’s legally wrong with lobbying, but what’s morally wrong about it. Cronyism doesn’t just endanger free and fair competition, but also public faith in the democratic process. Or as he said back in 2010: “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.”

In his defence, his government did introduce legislation on the issue — the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014. Unfortunately, it didn’t go nearly far enough.

The Act’s key weakness is that it only really deals with one kind of lobbying — “consultant lobbying”. Any lobbying outfit that meets the legal definition must join the Register of Consultant Lobbyists — which is regulated by the Office of the Registrar of Consultant Lobbyists.

Ironically, it is Cameron himself who demonstrates the narrowness of the legislation. He was accused of acting as an unregistered consultant lobbyist, but the regulator investigated and concluded that he had not. His dealings with Australian financier Lex Greensill clearly do not break his own law.

There’s also a voluntary Lobbying Register, managed by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, which “individual lobbyists and organisations” are encouraged to join. You can explore it here. For instance, if you run a search on Mark Oaten — the former Lib Dem MP — you get this entry. Try searching for David Cameron, however, and you get zero results.

Neither the legislation nor self-regulation is achieving the transparency that the former Prime Minister promised in the 2010 speech, when he pledged to make “sure that ex-ministers are not allowed to use their contacts and knowledge — gained while being paid by the public to serve the public — for their own private gain.”

It’s not just ex-ministers, of course. At any one time there are thousands of lobbyists at work in and around the Palace of Westminster, many of whom used to work there in a non-lobbying capacity. They’re drawn from all ranks — from ex-researchers right up to ex-premiers.

Some are a nuisance. Others are useful. A few are brilliant — a genuine loss to proper politics. But all are tolerated. That’s not just out of respect to fallen comrades, but self-interest too.

That’s partly because there’s no career structure in politics. At every turn, one’s path is strewn with sudden exits. Most professions have more room at the bottom than the top, but it’s hard to think of any other career that’s more likely to chew you up and spit you out at every stage. The music industry might be the best comparison. There’s more than one reason why “politics is show business for ugly people”.

It’s even worse for those who exit politics in middle age. I’m not sure who said it first, but there’s nothing as “ex” as an ex-MP.

And that’s why the public affairs industry plays such an indispensable role in our political system. Unlike most other employers, it rewards public service. Indeed, the longer and more senior that service, the greater the reward. As annoying as some lobbyists might be, their presence is also reassuring. Those in Westminster’s land-of-the-living know that, one day, they too might need a place in the political afterlife.

It’s therefore vital that we establish a clearer boundary between the two worlds. As in Christian theology, the living must stay on one side of the great divide and the dead on the other.

That means providing long-lasting careers for politicians — not so much for their sakes, but for ours. We’ve had a professional permanent government — i.e. the civil service — for more than a century. It’s high time that we ended amateur hour on the political side of public administration too. After all, our MPs are responsible for the scrutiny of legislation, the stewardship of hundreds of billions of pounds and for life-and-death decisions affecting millions of people.

If — like other countries — we had local governments that could truly shape the development of their communities, parliamentary committees that could propose and pass legislation, and think tanks with the permanence and heft of academic institutions; then there might be more to politics than the greasy pole of ministerial preferment. We’d be able to reward public service with the purpose and respect it deserves.

In any comparable field, we’d demand decades of experience from those at the top. Not politics though. An individual like David Cameron went from a job in PR to become an MP in 2001. Within four years he was Leader of the Opposition. And within nine, Prime Minister. Six years later he was out of politics altogether, with half his adult life still ahead of him. How can that possibly end well?