By Mark Wallace
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Today, like last week, a Sunday paper publishes claims of an MP allegedly agreeing to break Commons rules by carrying out lobbying activity for money. This time the person who it is claimed chomped on hooked bait was Tim Yeo, and the 'businesspeople' who had the odd habit of leaving their bags on their laps during a meeting were from the Sunday Times.
The allegations are extremely serious – that in return for money he offered access and influence. To sum up the main charge in his own words, "really almost everyone you needed to get hold of in this country, I should be able to help you do that" because "I've got a really very close relationship with really all the key players in the UK in government and the departments".
Those comments raise unpleasant reminders of 1998, the year of New Labour's first lobbying scandal in government, when then-SpAd Derek Draper told an undercover reporter:
"there are 17 people who count in this government…[to] say I am intimate with every one of them is the understatement of the century."
The second charge raised, which is likely to receive a lot of attention as a new development of the sleaze theme, is that Yeo also appears to lay out a way to get round rules on conflicts of interest. Specifically, in the footage he claims that he had coached a witness appearing before the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee, which Yeo chairs, on "what he should say" – even though he had excused himself from the questioning session itself due to a financial interest with the witness' parent company.
That is a truly remarkable claim. It may be a lie, of course, intended to raise his visitors' impression of him – but it would be a shocking thing to make up.
Coaching of witnesses before they appear before select committees is quite common; indeed, I've coached people myself in a previous job. It's perfectly legitimate for a witness to prepare, as often a business is putting a senior figure in front of a pack of inquisitors, most of whom are out for an opportunity to make it onto Today In Parliament through a demonstration of their questioning finesse, sense of humour, repartee and so on.
Such coaching involves many things: researching committee members; studying their past performances to deduce future behaviour; talking to the clerks whose job it is to liaise with and guide witnesses; poring over the details of the issue at hand to identify the worst possible questions your client might be asked; and then, of course, subjecting them to a rehearsal in which you get to ask all of those horrible questions.
What it emphatically does not involve is getting paid members of the committee – still less the chairman – to come in and "tell him in advance what he should say". If you even contemplated doing so in any consultancy or in-house public affairs team that I'm aware of, you'd be marched out the door without even a branded pencil sharpener as a memento. If that has happened – or even if, as is alleged, Yeo suggested he might do it for a client, that is outrageous.
There are a few important differences from the Mercer case which we should note:
- We still only have an edited 'lowlights' video of the meeting – a fuller account of the conversation may yet be released
- As far as the reports currently state, Yeo discussed various possble services but did not sign any contract, unlike Patrick Mercer
- The lack of contract leads to Yeo's defence against the allegations – that when the journalists withdrew their interest in hiring him, the day after the meeting, he wrote back to say he had been planning to tell them anyway that he was uncomfortable about the possibility they might be asking him to lobby for money, and that doing so would be a breach of the rules
- Whereas Mercer immediately resigned the Conservative whip, pledging to fight the allegations, Yeo is still wearing blue at the time of writing and denies: that he breached the code of conduct; that he offered to carry out any such activity; that he committed to work for the bogus company one day a month; or that he coached the committee witness he named.
So it seems he intends to battle the allegations, in which case we can expect more of the video to come to light as he challenges the paper's interpretation of events.
Yeo's enemies – particularly those who disagree with him about costly green policies – will be cock-a-hoop at the news. Many of them have long suggested that Yeo's financial interests in green industry are not a coincidence with his views, an implication he has always vigorously challenged.
If the allegations are proven, then it is very hard to see how he could continue not only as committee chairman but as an MP. The uncomfortable matter (for David Cameron) of the recall law promised in the Coalition Agreement will be raised again. In the meantime, the reputation of Parliamentarians as a group takes another pummelling – whether Yeo is guilty or not.