* Shock, horror! I can reveal that Home Secretary David Blunkett was dining with two top lobbyists from the lobbying consultancy Weber Shandwick at the Gay Hussar one evening a couple of weeks ago. Another lobbygate scandal in the making? I doubt it. One of them was former Labour Party press officer Colin Byrne, who in a relatively short time has built a reputation as one of the country’s top lobbyists. No doubt Mr Blunkett will have already registered this dinner appropriately, but the fact that it happened should not be a matter of concern anyone. David Blunkett obviously felt Byrne and his clients would have something relevant to say so he met them. The only question I would ask is who made the decision that he should do so? Tory Party Chairman David Davis believes the myriad of Labour Party apparatchiks who now serve as Special Advisers to Cabinet Ministers are now the gatekeepers to Ministers’ offices. He says in the Tory days it was civil servants who recommended who a Minister should see or who he should avoid. He has a point. After all, many of the special advisers come from Millbank and will know only too well who is a party donor and who isn’t. And here lies the danger. I’m not suggesting that Special Advisers actually make their decisions on the basis of how much a company pays into Labour coffers. But it could appear so, and in politics, appearance is everything. This is why we now have an Electoral Commission and the Neill Committee – to ensure everything is as it appears. Davis’s suggestion that Special Adviser appointments should be open to parliamentary scrutiny is a good one.
* In a similar vein, I recently took part in a TV discussion about Enron on BBC2’s Westminster Live programme. Labour MP Martin O’Neill was also there. Mr O’Neill is the Labour Chairman of the Trade & Industry Select Committee. The Register of Members’ Interests tells us he is also paid in excess of £10,000 a year to advise the Machine Tools Association on parliamentary matters. On the face of it there is a conflict of interest here, yet in Westminster we know Mr O’Neill to be above reproach. I imagine if the Chairman of the Committee were a Tory called Neil Hamilton different conclusions would be drawn. It’s a funny old world.
* It’s almost impossible not to feel a certain degree of Schadenfreude about the departure of Jo Moore. I remember doing a newspaper review shortly after her indiscretion was first publicised and predicting live on TV that she would have to go. Five months later I almost breathed a sigh of relief when I heard she had finally gone. After all, we political pundits are only as good as our last prediction - and I was beginning to think I might have pushed the boat out a bit far regarding the future of Ms Moore. However, it’s not all a garden of roses. I’m also on the record predicting that Stephen Byers will also be gone by July. It seems that this Government have learned very little from their Tory predecessors about resigning. Lesson? Do it quickly and get it over with or face suffering the death of a thousand cuts at the hands of the media. So, Mr Byers, come on – put us out of our misery. It’s safe to say that if he doesn’t do so, Tony Blair may well do us all a favour in his next reshuffle, and put Mr Byers out of his own misery.
Stephen Byers also gets a rather strange mention in the newly published Oxford Companion to Twentieth Century British Politics. He is listed as being the son of the former 1950s Liberal MP, Frank Byers. Er, I think not. His father’s name was Robert, a RAF radar technician. This is just one example of a litany of minor errors which can only devalue a work of serious political reference. But perhaps the major crime of this book is to portrays itself as an academic work of reference, yet all the Tory entries have been written by the less than objective virulent anti-Tory commentator Ed Pearce. This book is a weighty tome and costs a pretty £35. Far be it from me as a bookseller to suggest you save your money, but be ready to read the unexpected.
I’ve just finished recording a little series on cross party political friendships for Radio 5 Live’s Sunday Service programme. The whole point of it was to demonstrate that politicians can be human beings too, and that people from different parties can get along with each other away from the ‘yah-boo’ atmosphere in Westminster. Among others we paired up David Davis and Tony Benn, Gillian Shephard and Oona King, Lembit Opik and Nick Brown and next week we get to hear about the touching friendship between Tory Nigel Evans and Blair Babe Helen Clarke (nee Brinton). The message to come out of this series so far is that each of these unlikely pairings actually agree with other on many more policy issues than one might have imagined too. I suppose it might make politics more civilised, but probably more boring too. But then again, Benn was also quite friendly with Enoch Powell. How far political friendships can really go is debateable. Very few of the politicians we interviewed ever admitted to socialising with their political “friend” outside Westminster, so there’s always something that is held back. At least none of them will have to suffer the fate of 1970s Labour MP Eddy Griffiths who was deselected by his local Labour Party when they found out that he had spent a weekend at the home of his friend, Tory MP and Thatcher biographer Ernle Money.
The final part of Iain Dale’s series on Cross Party Political Friendships can be heard during Sunday Service on Radio 5 Live on Sunday 24 February between 10am and 12 noon.