UK: OPEN DOORS AT WESTMINSTER.

UK: OPEN DOORS AT WESTMINSTER. - Never before have so many politicians been prepared to pay lip service to the aims and values of British business. Many of them are a waste of time. Only a handful have the clout and understanding to deliver.

by Peter Oborne.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Never before have so many politicians been prepared to pay lip service to the aims and values of British business. Many of them are a waste of time. Only a handful have the clout and understanding to deliver.

There has never been a more important time for business to embrace politics. It is not simply that a general election is at most a year away.

More importantly, Britain is facing the overwhelming likelihood of the first change in government in a generation. If Labour comes to power, it will bring with it a new set of attitudes that spell a revolution in policy towards trade, industry and the City.

For the first time this century both major parties, Labour and Conservative, are claiming to be business-friendly.

In a series of speeches and events since the middle of last year, Tony Blair and his shadow chancellor, Gordon Brown, have taken their message to businessmen. Labour claims that business has got at least as much say in policy-making as the trade unions.

It is a tremendous opportunity for business to play one party off against another - as British Telecommunications did when it struck a deal with Labour which gave the telecoms giant increased competition in its domestic markets in return for a promise to wire up Britain's schools and libraries to the Internet.

But the Tories know they must fight for the business vote too if they want to stand a chance of winning the next election. Never before have so many politicians been prepared to pay lip service to the aims and the values of British companies. Never before have there been so many open doors for business in Westminster.

So access is not difficult. Says Paul Wheeler, of the Public Policy Group, 'There's no mystery about it. A lot of lobbying firms suggest that the only way is through them. Quite frankly, if you are a big company a lot of politicians prefer the direct approach. And when you meet, the more specific you can be about your problems the better.'

Professional lobbying firms are useful in harnessing strategy by identifying key allies and defining how the object can best be achieved. Lobbying does work - as the defeat of Post Office privatisation or the successful operation on the Broadcasting Bill currently passing through Parliament shows.

Many politicians are a waste of time. Only a handful have the clout and understanding to deliver. So who are the key players among the Conservatives, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and Whitehall's civil servants? Which key personalities pull the strings today - and who will be pulling the strings if Labour wins the election?

The Tory Party has always been the party of business. But it has never listened to business with the intensity it is doing today. It is desperate for information, money, support and for votes. Businessmen knocking at ministers' doors will find them open. If anything, the problem of access is the other way round. Britain's top companies, uncertain of what the future holds, have become reluctant to to link themselves openly to the Tories.

There are four key players in Government for business: prime minister John Major, chancellor Kenneth Clarke, trade secretary Ian Lang, and deputy prime minister Michael Heseltine.

And nobody matters more than Heseltine. He sees everything that goes on in Whitehall and from his cabinet office base has virtually unlimited scope to intervene. So ruthless is the deputy prime minister that some cabinet ministers wait to find out when Heseltine will be away before making their own holiday plans.

Although Heseltine is far more attuned to the demands of businessmen than many other politicians, businessmen say that he is hard to deal with.

'He's rather aloof and arrogant, and he's always looking for a political advantage. Many business people are reluctant to let themselves side openly with the Government on some project or success story. But Hezza will push them to allow ministers to open a new plant or take a share of the credit for a new exciting project,' says one experienced Whitehall lobbyist.

But he admits Heseltine is an irreplaceable ally. 'If something has happened and we want to stop it he's the last resort,' the lobbyist goes on. 'For instance, if a client is not on a delegation and he's being blocked, Heseltine will make sure he gets on. And in an emergency you can ring his office and try and get him to stop an announcement if you can convince him the timing's wrong or that it will cause embarrassment.' Access to Heseltine is controlled by Lady Strathnaver, his loyal political adviser of many years. 'She can always get a message to him wherever he is. And she'll fix a five-minute slot at one week's notice, one day's notice and even 60 minutes' notice if need be,' says a lobbyist.

Beyond a shadow of a doubt Heseltine is the most powerful ally you can have in the Government. Under John Major's premiership, Downing Street does not keep the tight and decisive grip on policy at every level that it did under Margaret Thatcher. The prime minister chairs few cabinet committees, and the Downing Street staff is more than ever geared towards fighting the election. Businessmen say, however, that they tend to find the prime minister easier to talk too, possibly less intimidating, than his deputy. 'He's brilliant with captains of industry because he actually bothers to listen and will take action,' says a senior industrialist.

The critical hands-on minister for business is Ian Lang, the secretary of state for trade. Lang took over his portfolio last summer, replacing Michael Heseltine when the latter became deputy prime minister. The shadow of Heseltine rather looms over Lang. For one thing Heseltine has taken with him many of the more vigorous areas of his department - above all the competition and deregulation units. For another, Lang himself has been slow to assert his authority. He has kept a low political profile.

In any case, Heseltine takes what his cabinet colleagues regard as rather an unhealthy interest in his old department.

Lang is known as a highly cautious minister. He consults extremely widely - almost pathologically so - before making a decision. But he is accessible.

After years at the Scottish Office his problem was that he knew very few English companies.

'He has gone out of his way to get to know as many businesses as possible since taking over the DTI,' says a colleague. 'He doesn't mind going out on the steak-and-kidney-pie-and-claret circuit.'

A key deputy is Tim Eggar, the energy minister. Eggar has announced he will quit politics at the election: his Whitehall influence is duly weakened.

But the fact remains that his mastery of the energy sector, deployed with much of the finesse and intellectual arrogance one would expect of an Old Wykehamist, is second to none. The corporate sector, however, sometimes complains that he is strangely powerless. Even the night before the referral of the PowerGen bid for Southern Electricity, Eggar was indicating that there was no serious regulatory problem.

The fourth big player is Kenneth Clarke. Like his Labour shadow Gordon Brown, the chancellor is unlobbyable. 'He's very much roped in by his officials,' says one lobbyist. 'He's an awkward sod. He's very approachable and will listen and even appear to agree before going off and doing something else entirely. He rarely changes his mind. And he can see you coming a mile off.'

A handful of other senior Tories are worth the trouble. Home secretary Michael Howard and social security secretary Peter Lilley are effective and well tuned-in. Gillian Shephard sits on key cabinet economic committees courtesy of her employment brief. Nor should business neglect the groups on the fringes of Westminster. Think-tanks such as the Centre for Policy Studies and the Institute for Economic Affairs can deliver access. Sir Basil Feldman, chairman of the National Union of Conservative Parties, has been a valuable friend for many business people. But in today's Tory Party there's no substitute for Heseltine.

Blair matters far more than anyone else in the Labour Party. His predecessors, John Smith and Neil Kinnock, were more than happy to leave members of the shadow cabinet to make policy on their own. But Blair is not. Those whose faces do not fit - like employment spokesman Michael Meacher and trade spokesman Margaret Beckett - are frozen out. Power is concentrated in a tiny group of loyal or respected politicians - shadow chancellor Gordon Brown, chief whip Donald Dewar and shadow foreign secretary Robin Cook. A handful outside the magic circle have favoured status - social security spokesman Chris Smith, for instance. But many of today's shadow cabinet face relegation to the back-benches within months of a Blair matters far more than anyone else in the Labour Party. His predecessors, John Smith and Neil Kinnock, were more than happy to leave members of the shadow cabinet to make policy on their own. But Blair is not. Those whose faces do not fit - like employment spokesman Michael Meacher and trade spokesman Margaret Beckett - are frozen out. Power is concentrated in a tiny group of loyal or respected politicians - shadow chancellor Gordon Brown, chief whip Donald Dewar and shadow foreign secretary Robin Cook. A handful outside the magic circle have favoured status - social security spokesman Chris Smith, for instance. But many of today's shadow cabinet face relegation to the back-benches within months of a Labour election victory. So Blair's private office, located in a ramshackle collection of rooms behind the Speaker's Chair in the Commons, holds the key to any serious lobbying effort. Without its seal of approval, nothing will be achieved. With its support everything is possible. And Labour insiders insist that Blair is very happy to meet businessmen who have something important to convey.

Paul Wheeler, now a director of the Public Policy Unit lobbying concern, was formerly a senior Labour strategist. He insists: 'If you are the chief executive of a Footsie-100 company you have a direct line to Tony Blair. If you have a concern about a piece of proposed legislation, Tony Blair's office will take that very seriously.'

Industry adviser in Blair's office is 36-year-old Geoffrey Norris, a rising star tipped to enter the No 10 Policy Unit if Labour wins the election.

'Geoffrey is brilliant and he knows the ropes,' says one insider.

But firms with specific issues to raise could be better off going through one of the other experts who personally advise the Labour leader. These include Pat McFadden, (on constitutional issues) a longstanding but still youthful researcher who is highly regarded by Blair, former TV producer Peter Hyman (on health) and Derek Scott (on economics) who works at investment bank BZW. The final gate-keeper to the leader's office is Angie Hunter, Tony Blair's childhood friend who controls the leader's diary and much more besides.

And finally there is Peter Mandelson, nominally Labour's civil service spokesman. His behind-the-scenes power in Labour is almost as great as his enemies say it is. Mandelson's grip on policy is awesome, his access to the Labour leader unlimited. If a lobbyist can obtain the support of Mandelson - not an especially easy task - he is well on his way to success.

Gordon Brown, the shadow chancellor, is in the words of a friend 'unlobbyable.

He knows his own mind. He does not have much time for swanning around the City and company boardrooms.'

His deputy, Andrew Smith, who will be chief secretary at the Treasury if Labour wins power, is likewise a remote and dour figure. The most approachable in the Brown Treasury team - despatched to listen and to sell the message around the City - is beyond question the number three, Alastair Darling.

One political enemy accuses Brown's office of a 'bunker mentality, both politically and commercially. They have very little to do with the business community, to Gordon's detriment.' Margaret Beckett, shadow trade secretary and seen within Labour as a close ally of Brown, should be a formidable player but isn't. Beckett has experience of government under the last Labour government and a background in science that should make her sympathetic to businessmen's concerns. In practice, as one well-informed observer comments, 'No one knows what the hell she's doing'. Her sprawling team, however, merits close attention. Like most of Labour's shadow teams it contains its share of deadbeats, but some of them are rising stars who are well-regarded by the leadership and should enter the shadow cabinet if Labour wins the next election: above all, Kim Howells, Barbara Roche and Geoffrey Hoon. John Prescott shadows deputy prime minister Michael Heseltine. But while Heseltine is a vital player wielding huge influence within the Tory government, Prescott is left on the outside. 'There's an awareness that he's not talking to enough people,' says a colleague.

It is not easy to approach Labour's top players - and demand is high.

But access will only get more difficult as the election approaches, and it is possible now. There is no question that businessmen with a case to put can get it heard. 'They want a very practical exchange of information,' declares Neal Lawson, who worked as adviser to Gordon Brown before transferring to the private sector to work for the lobbying arm of Lowe Bell. 'A businesslike meeting is all that is needed. Lunches, attempts to wine and dine, don't pay too well.'

Nor is it enough simply to lobby shadow ministers. It is worthwhile for companies to makes themselves known on the Labour circuit - to give money to left-leaning think tanks like Demos, the Institute for Public Policy Research and the Fabian Society, to host receptions at party conference.

A useful link between the politicians and Labour is the Industry Forum, which brings shadow cabinet minsters and business together.

Labour tends to cite supermarket chain Tesco as a firm which has been highly successful in endearing itself to Labour. Once a slavish Tory supporter and important donor to Tory funds, Tesco has transformed its image by showing Labour the same respect as that accorded to the Tories through sponsoring events and becoming a serious presence at party conferences.

It helps that it has established excellent relations with the unions and is confident that all of its workforce earns more than any proposed National Minimum Wage.

'The board virtually took a decision that Labour is going to win the election,' says a City analyst. 'They want good relations - which will come in very handy when they put in their bids for those out-of-town planning consents.'

sell who know the system backwards and command heavy personal respect.

In the Commons, chief whip Archie Kirkwood is a formidable operator. Because they lack clout the Lib Dems have to work that much harder. They know the parliamentary system backwards and should not be overlooked.

To put it mildly, the Liberal Democrats are not as critical as the two main parties, but they have their uses. In certain regions - the South-West and parts of Scotland - they can put heavy regional pressure on the government decision-making machine. And in the House of Lords they possess some heavy hitters, such as Lord Thomson of Monifieth, Lord Holme of Cheltenham and Lord Russell, who know the system backwards and command heavy personal respect.

In the Commons, chief whip Archie Kirkwood is a formidable operator. Because they lack clout the Lib Dems have to work that much harder. They know the parliamentary system backwards and should not be overlooked.

One businessman hails Steve Robson, deputy secretary at the Treasury as 'simply the most powerful civil servant in Whitehall'. Robson has vast experience of the pincer issues that have linked government to industry and the City over the past decade. His empire at the Treasury now embraces the flagship Private Finance Initiative, privatisation, relations with industry and financial regulation of the stock markets, banks and building societies. Robson, an athletic character who cycles to work, could not be less like a typical civil servant. One businessman who has dealt widely with him declares: 'He is a chatty, communicative, determined character.

He understands the private sector. He's prepared to talk turkey. At the end of the day all roads lead back to Robson.' He has turned down repeated attempts to go and work in the private sector and is tipped to succeed Sir Terence Burns as permanent secretary at the Treasury.

The key operator at the DTI is Alastair Macdonald, another deputy secretary.

His wide-ranging brief includes critical issues such as telecoms, engineering, aerospace and the Post Office. He is a former Financial Times journalist, and those who have had any dealings with him say that he has none of the traits of an old-style Whitehall mandarin, but gets to the heart of an issue very quickly indeed.

Bob Dobbie was hand-picked by Michael Heseltine to go with him from the DTI to the cabinet office where he has responsibility for the deputy prime minister's competitiveness division. This is a massive area which encompasses education, training, employment, and Britain's industrial performance. A tall lean Scot, he is described by one insider as 'quite exceptionally shrewd'.

Working for Dobbie is a civil servant to watch - Lucy Neville Rolfe, who is the director of the powerful Deregulation Unit. Under Heseltine there are few areas of government policy which deregulation does not affect. Like Dobbie, she was brought from the DTI by the deputy prime minister. Before that she worked in the No 10 Policy Unit.

At No 10 the industry portfolio - among many others - is overseen by former DTI official Dominic Morris who is always prepared to listen, and extremely bright. One lobbyist calls him the linchpin of the No 10 Policy Unit. l

Peter Oborne is assistant editor (politics) at the Sunday Express.

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