MPs' cash-for-influence: the inside story

The exclusive story behind the MPs cash-for-lobbying sting, revealed by the journalist who uncovered Westminster's double-dealing
March 25, 2010
Geoff Hoon talks to an undercover reporter on Channel 4's Dispatches

They say that after the expenses scandal, the reputation of MPs sunk lower than that of estate agents. It’s anybody’s guess, then, where their reputation stands after this week’s cash for influence affair. However, after falling so spectacularly for a simple undercover television sting, it is perhaps the intelligence of such politicians that is now more in question. Why did people who are supposed to possess the intelligence to run our country not have the intelligence to see through such a thin spoof?

I produced and directed the Dispatches programme Politicians for Hire, which revealed senior politicians, including former cabinet ministers Stephen Byers, Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt, offering their lobbying services in return for cash. Looking through the many hours of footage, the question that I asked myself continually was how people who helped run this country for many years could have even turned up for those interviews, let alone said what they did.

Stephen Byers was the first person to be interviewed in our sting, in which we set up a fictitious company called Anderson Perry, backed by a website full of management consultant jargon and fairly crass one liners. (Our offices were theoretically in smart St James's although the meeting rooms there were only hired by the hour.) When he first responded to the unsolicited call from Anderson Perry, Byers was in the middle east. He was one of nearly 20 politicians who were approached about a month ago. Not one of them put the phone down. That was startling enough; and a course of action that Alistair Darling said this week should have been de rigueur.

Evidently, that advice went unheeded. Even though the pictures were compressed and the sound less than perfect, the uncut version of Byers’s interview made compelling viewing, enough in itself to have filled an hour of television. He billed himself as “an ideas man,” although he cautioned that only one out of ten ideas might come off. An outsider would be hard-pushed to work out that he was actually still a serving MP.

The chancellor’s advice was certainly not heeded by two extremely senior and long-serving Tory politicians either—including Michael Howard, who talked it through on the phone and, in a follow-up email, suggested that breakfast might be a good idea. At first he wanted us to tell him what restrictions there might be if he was elevated to the Lords, but then backed off a few days later without confirming the interview. Meanwhile, one former Labour cabinet minister was interviewed, but the sound was so poor that we could only hear appetising phrases. He had the good fortune to be sitting in front of a brightly lit window, over-exposing the shot. And we just couldn’t understand much of what another former minister said because of his thick accent.

Why, I wondered, would any serving MP or peer, in light of the expenses scandal, want to respond to an unsolicited call from a lobbying company they had never heard of, representing anonymous clients? I once made an undercover film about Chelsea football hooligans and it was far more difficult to fool them than it was to open up the heart of Westminster. Anderson Perry's so-called lobbyist didn’t even claim to be an expert in public affairs, but somebody who previously worked only in PR. Rather than question her credentials to be running the London branch of a big US public affairs firm, some of the MPs merely congratulated her on her big break.

If only they had paused before agreeing to gallop off to our posh-sounding address near Westminster for a chat, they might have noticed many of the obvious clues that they missed. The company name—Anderson Perry—was a reversal of the name Perry Anderson. (But, then again, how long is it since a Marxist historian’s work was on the New Labour summer reading list?) The company website was branded with a cheap logo and was teeming with crass lines. We were a Communications Strategist With A Personal Touch. Wasn’t that enough?

Among those who have now run into trouble as a result of their indiscretions, former defence secretary Geoff Hoon gently enquired as to the identity of the Anderson Perry’s supposed US clients. He was satisfied with a promise that he could meet the clients at a follow-up meeting. Stephen Byers did eventually sense that something was not quite right. After the interview he sent an email to say how much he was looking forward to working with APA. Yet even after sleeping on it and sending a regretful email the following day, it took him another week to officially pull out of Anderson Perry’s so-called advisory board.

Were these people merely blinded by the lure of the big fat cheque in return for a glimpse of their contacts book and attending the occasional board meeting? It’s tempting to think so. It was the politicians, Margaret Moran apart, who volunteered the staggeringly high day rates. The figures were so high and yet so similar—£3000-£5000 a day plus—that it almost felt these politicians had agreed a rate among themselves beforehand, or at least that such a rate was now deemed commonplace in Westminster.

Had so many years of being cosseted in SW1 made them fearful of life beyond? Hoon was clearly concerned about the future when he turned up for interview, notwithstanding his imminent parliamentary pay-off (which can total up to £65,000) and the generous ministerial pension. Leaving politics had made him more worried than ever before, he said. Uppermost in his mind was having to pay his children’s university fees.

It was the politicians’ body language that also told the story: Geoff Hoon opened his jacket with his hand almost brushing where his wallet might be as he explained his wish to convert his contacts into "something that, bluntly, makes money"; Margaret Moran’s arm waving was not that of somebody who had been off ill for so long; Stephen Byers’s relaxed way of leaning forward (and into the camera) as he easily sketched out his knowledge of oil companies and the mining companies’ desires to expand into Kazakhstan—and the way in which Patricia Hewitt carefully studied her glasses as she clarified the best way to approach a minister.

So why did they say what they said? And why did they say it so easily? The more I watched and listened, the more it seemed reasonable to conclude that our candidates had fallen out of love with politics—and with party politics in particular. Stephen Byers was apparently no longer a “tribal animal”; Geoff Hoon insisted that defence matters in particular were party neutral; Conservative MP Sir John Butterfill claimed easy access to both main parties. In their attempts to show off their access to all areas, they painted an image of Westminster as one big club where the members just pretend to be different for the public’s sake.

Despite David Cameron’s recent (prescient) speech warning that lobbying was the next big scandal, it’s impossible to argue that the Conservatives are immune to all of this. They may have hung Sir John Butterfill out to dry this week but, in the tapes, he is insistent that he could have easily won the attention of the Tory leadership. There will probably be some relief in the Tory high command that for reasons of time we did not include the remarks about George Osborne—“we get on like a house on fire”—and Sir John’s cycling chum David Cameron, of whom he said: “we were always meeting in the changing rooms when were showering because we were hot and sticky when we got in.”

Most depressing of all was the “school’s out” atmosphere that pervaded many of the interviews. Patricia Hewitt’s monthly diary was assessed in the numbers of days that she was away from Westminster rather than at it. She fitted her interview with us in between two votes at Westminster.

The looming general election was occasionally referred to, but there was little talk of helping their soon-to-be former colleagues hold onto power. Stephen Byers spoke of talking to civil servants in April, rather than the electorate. A clear April ahead of him, Geoff Hoon left the interview talking of the early vote that Wednesday in parliament—which would free him up for a decent dinner.

Channel 4's Dispatches programme, Politicians For Hire, is available to watch on 4-On Demand.