5 Oct 2011

Lobbying for changes to the PM’s big speech

No. 10 was busy last night trying (unsuccessfully) to avoid the “cut your credit card up” headlines previewing the PM’s speech here this afternoon. The whole point of the speech was to convey some optimism about the future and you’ll hear all of that later. So it shows “naivety” more than one minister said to me last night, that the speechwriters inserted lines like “deal with your debts” and “households – all of us – paying off the credit card and store card bills.”

One Tory peer and businessman said it was “incredible” and “plain wrong” to issue such an edict: store-card defaults, he said, were at a 25 year low. Another businessman and prominent Tory said it was “bonkers” to issue such a decree and that all the signs were that individuals were “jealously guarding” their credit ratings and not going mad.

On Europe, William Hague this morning on Radio 4 just said that treaty changes “take years…some years or many years.” One senior minister told me he thought we were talking about 15 to 20 years. Another said that was rubbish and events will move much faster. The priority for this conference was to acknowledge that the Euro crisis, which rendered this conference season fairly irrelevant on some measures, was a central concern but Europe as a topic must not dominate proceedings the way it always used to.

The message to Eurosceptics straining at the leash was, in the immortal words of Eric Morecambe to Arthur Tolcher the harmonica player, “not now, Arthur.”

Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail wants lobbyists barred from conferences and thinks this year, more than ever, they have taken over the conference fringe. But their guzzling and fees helps to make the annual conference a real money spinner for the Conservatives – they get a share of the bar-takings in the Conference hotel amongst much else.

One minister explained to me last night that what the lobbyists have worked out, in the age of the FOI and transparency, that Conferences still provide the best moment of undeclarable access to ministers in the calendar. You either host a fringe meeting that brings the minister into your lair for an hour of chat on your pet project or bane, or you lurk around the hotel or conference centre pouncing on the minister as they go past without the usual limo for protection.

Such contacts are too brief and spontaneous to be declarable under FOI applications, and get you in the minister’s face, your calling card and briefing material pressed into their mitts. I can report that they even pounce on reporters like this one. One of them squeezed my arm so tightly trying to steer me across a room to meet his guests that I thought the blood might stop running.

I never found out what he thought he’d get from the exchange because I fled the party. So on a number of grounds I don’t think Quentin Letts will have his way. The lobbyists are here to stay.

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