by Michael Dugher
On Wednesday, David Cameron finally unveiled the long-awaited lobbying bill called “Transparency of Lobbying.” The irony of this title has not been lost given that the last week has been dominated by the continued refusal by the prime minister to shed any light on his discussions with the tobacco lobbyist and chief Tory strategist, Lynton Crosby.
David Cameron has now been asked at least twelve times whether he has ever had a conversation with Mr Crosby about cigarette packaging – and he has refused to give a straight answer every time.
In a car-crash interview with Channel 4’s Gary Gibbon on Thursday, which was reminiscent of the famous Jeremy Paxman/ Michael Howard interview when Howard refused to answer a straightforward question a total of twelve times in succession, Cameron repeatedly refused to answer the simple question: have you ever had a conversation or had discussions with Mr Crosby about tobacco and plain packaging?
Each time, Cameron responds with the carefully constructed, legalistic reply: “I have never been lobbied by Mr Crosby on anything”. This clearly does not answer the question.
So why is David Cameron being so evasive? It is instructive to look back at the timeline of events to see how the Prime Minister got to this embarrassing situation. In November last year, Cameron appointed Mr Crosby as a strategy advisor. Just a few weeks later, Mr Crosby reportedly met with the prime minister, the chancellor and the prime minister’s chief of staff at Chequers to discuss the contents of the forthcoming queen’s speech. Then, in the queen’s speech in May, the government dropped its plans for standardised tobacco packaging.
Last week, it was also revealed that Mr Crosby even chaired a meeting late last year where members of the tobacco industry discussed how to block the government’s plan to force cigarettes to be sold in plain packets
So what was discussed at the meeting at Chequers and other meetings Cameron had with Mr Crosby before the queen’s speech? Reports have suggested that Mr Crosby told Cameron to “get the barnacles off the boat” by concentrating on core electoral battlegrounds and abandoning certain legislation. If Cameron actually never had a conversation about tobacco policy with Mr Crosby, he should simply say so now.
It is incredible that he is introducing a “Transparency of Lobbing” bill yet is refusing to be open with the public about what conversations he has had with a man who has the major tobacco company, Philip Morris International, as a paying client at the same time as he is undertaking work for the Conservative Party.
But it seems that the chance of getting a straightforward response is slim. But this is not remotely new. Cameron has been very secretive about the extent of Mr Crosby’s role for months.
Numerous parliamentary questions and freedom of information requests have been dodged about what meetings Mr Crosby has had in Downing street. Again, a stonewalling response has been given each time: “Mr Crosby is not employed by the Government”.
Last week, I submitted a written parliamentary question about Mr Crosby requesting details of the occasions that the lobbyist has been registered on the access records as a visitor to Downing street. These records are meticulously kept and other Government departments, for example the ministry of defence, have been more than happy to provide similar information about access to Government buildings by non-governmental employees.
Given that there is a precedent for this type of question to be answered – with full dates and details – it will be interesting to see how the prime minister chooses to respond.
As David Cameron leaves Westminster this week for the summer recess, the obfuscation, the weasel words and the unanswered questions about his chief adviser and favourite fags man remain.
Cameron’s refusal to answer straightforward questions makes a mockery of his commitment to openness. He used to say that sunlight was the best disinfectant. Transparency? Not it would seem when it comes to Lynton Crosby.
What we are left with is a lasting impression that this is a prime minister who promised change, but instead he chooses to stand up for the wrong people. And what’s more – like the kid at school who has more self-confidence than ability – David Cameron never seems to learn. We are now seeing a pattern of behaviour to his premiership. As Ed Miliband said at PMQs last week: “It is Andy Coulson all over again”.
Michael Dugher is MP for Barnsley East, Labour vice-chair and shadow minister without portfolio