Lobbying Scandals, British Style

If Mitt Romney becomes the Republican candidate for president, he will have to answer tough questions about the role of lobbyists in his administration.

As First Street reported last week, lobbyists hold many positions in his campaign – as advisers, staffers, bundlers and donors.

Yet neither Romney nor President Obama is facing the scrutiny that UK Prime Minister David Cameron has encountered in the UK cash-for-access scandal.

Peter Cruddas resigned Saturday as co-treasurer of the Conservative Party after a newspaper reported that he had offered to provide access to Cameron in exchange for contributions to the party.

The Sunday Times secretly filmed Cruddas talking to undercover reporters posing as British expats working for a Liechtenstein company.

Cruddas told them they could meet with Cameron if they made annual donations as high as £250,000 (about $400,000).

He described that level of support as “Premier League,” getting them a seat at the table for dinner with Cameron. There, he promised, donors could ask “practically any question you want. … If you’re unhappy about something, we will listen to you and put it into the policy committee at No. 10.”

Cruddas resigned before the Times posted the video.

He issued a statement saying: “I deeply regret any impression of impropriety arising from my bluster. Clearly there is no question of donors being able to influence policy or gain undue access to politicians. Specifically, it was categorically not the case that I could offer, or that David Cameron would consider, any access as a result of a donation.”

Cameron quickly pledged more transparency, releasing the names of donors who had attended dinners at his private residence and calling for a cap on donations.

But critics say Cruddas promised more than access, suggesting that donors could buy policy changes.

“This government has proved alarmingly susceptible to lobbying and bought favours,'”
Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins wrote.

(We should note that Jenkins also wrote that the amounts cited by Cruddas “pale against those now tormenting US presidential politics and clearly corrupting the processes of Congress.”)

This isn’t the first time that a government official has been caught in an undercover sting.

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Last year, reporters from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism recorded public affairs executive Tim Collins as he claimed to have access to Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne.

Cameron had pledged to out the lobbyists when ran for prime minister in 2010.

“I believe that secret corporate lobbying, like the expenses scandal, goes to the heart of why people are so fed up with politics,” he said then. He described behind-the-door influence trading as “an issue that exposes the far-too-cozy relationship between politics, government, business and money.”

Now those words are being thrown back at him. The horde of detractors includes Rupert Murdoch, head of News Corp., owner of the Sunday Times.

“Great Sunday Times scoop,” he boasted on Twitter. “What was Cameron thinking? No-one, rightly or wrongly, will believe his story.”

UK law requires reporting of any party political donations higher than £7,500. Contributions from foreign individuals and corporations are banned. The parties have been talking for years about campaign financing reform, but talks have repeatedly broken down.

A report issued in November by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, a government advisory panel, called for a donation limit of £10,000. It also recommended that companies making donations should have to reveal their ownership.

Unlike the U.S., the UK government does not require lobbyist registration and reporting. Cameron’s government sent Parliament a proposal for a central registry in January.

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