At last year’s Conservative summer party, mingling with David Cameron, secretaries of state, junior ministers, MPs, Lords and parliamentary candidates, were 19 lobbyists and public relations specialists. Their clients included Gulf states, fracking firms, oligarchs and banking giants.
Among these high profile PR specialists was Lord Clanwilliam whose firm represents the government of Bahrain. He headed one of the more prominent tables, hosting defence secretary Philip Hammond.
The seating plan for the event obtained by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism shows there were four additional tables hosted by key members of staff from lobbying and public relations companies, including a firm that represents Russian businessmen.
Many other public relations staff were hosted on other tables, including a partner at Bell Pottinger, a communications and lobbying firm, which represents Bahrain’s Economic Development Board. She was placed on the seating plan next to justice minister Chris Grayling.
There is no suggestion that any representatives from these public relations companies discussed their clients or tried to influence policy at the event. But their proximity to senior government figures raises questions about disclosure rules surrounding meetings with ministers.
If lobbyists or PR representatives meet ministers on a one-to-one basis or in their offices, those meetings have to be declared by the ministers. When a minister attends a reception or other large event in their official capacity this has to be disclosed, but there is no requirement to list individuals met on these occasions. The disclosure rules do not extend to party fundraising events or conferences.
Sponsoring the table at which Mr Hammond, defence secretary, was placed was Old Etonian Lord Clanwilliam, a one-time government special adviser. The table was a ‘premium’ one, which would have cost at least £10,000.
The seating plan shows that intended guests on the table included Dr Afnan Al-Shuaiby, the CEO of the Arab-British Chamber of Commerce whose job includes fostering UK-Bahrain trade links and Conor Burns MP, chair of the UK-Bahrain All-Party Parliamentary Group.
Lord Clanwilliam was asked whether he represented Bahrain’s interests at the event, or discussed any issues affecting any of his firm’s clients. He declined to comment.
Patsy Lewis, a partner from Bell Pottinger, which represents fracking company Cuadrilla, is listed on the documents as sitting on a table sponsored by big Tory donor David Ord. Also on that table were pro-fracking politicians Chris Grayling, justice secretary, and Peter Lilley, MP.
Although fracking is not in his brief, Mr Grayling spoke at the Conservative Party conference in September 2013 in favour of the controversial practice, which he said was the solution to high energy bills.
The documents obtained by the Bureau show Bell Pottinger, which has donated £66,980 to the Conservatives, sponsored a separate table. James Henderson, chief executive, was listed as sitting on the table, as was Bell Pottinger’s communications director.
Mr Henderson said: ‘Patsy went in a private capacity as the personal guest of her host. She didn’t raise any issues on behalf of Bell Pottinger or her clients.’
Long-term PR man David Burnside, whose company New Century Media advises the Russian government and oligarchs, hosted another table.
Mr Burnside was surrounded by three other colleagues and three Russian guests. Also on the table was John Whittingdale, the chair of the British-Ukraine APPG and vice chair of the APPG for Russia.
New Century Media, which says it employs ‘long-standing connections’ and ‘personal contacts at the highest levels of global media, business and politics’ on its clients’ behalf, has donated £91,000 to the Conservatives.
Unlike Bell Pottinger and Lord Clanwilliam, New Century Media does not belong to the Association of Political Consultants (APPC) or the Public Relations Consultants Association (PRCA), which require their members to disclose all their public affairs clients.
Another public affairs firm represented at the event was Capital Strategy Limited, which is also not a member of either the APPC or PRCA. The firm’s website says it has worked for a global investment bank, a large US hospital operator and a ‘leading global hedge fund’.
Capital Strategy’s founder, former Tory fundraiser Sophie de Schwarzburg-Gunther, sponsored two tables, with guests including Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers and two Parliamentary candidates.
But it wasn’t only lobbying agencies that had the opportunity to collar ministers over dinner.
Shipping tycoon Constantine Logothetis hosted a table at which the transport secretary is listed as sitting. Logothetis has donated £56,046 since the Summer Party. Alongside him was Laurent Cadji, another major shipping fleet owner.
Currently the shipping industry is waging a last minute lobbying assault to delay new international rules to reduce the sulphur dioxide contained in fuel. Due to start next year, the reform will dramatically raise fleet owners’ costs. There is no suggestion that either Logothetis or Cadji discussed the issue with Patrick McLoughlin.
Rules on declarations
Ministers are currently required to disclose the date and reason for their official meetings with external organisations, gifts worth over £140 and hospitality received and overseas travel.
Lists are published on a quarterly basis.
Details tend to be scant, with reasons given such as ‘negotiation’ or ‘defence issues’.
If ministers declare attendance at a reception or other group event, the host organisation is usually named but not the individual guests.
Party-political events such as the summer party are not covered by the rules because attendance is not considered official.
Header image: Jeremy Hunt and Phillip Hammond and his wife Susan arrive at the Conservative Summer Party 2013 at Old Billingsgate. Credit: Alan Davidon/The Picture Library