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A weekly newsletter on campaigning, lobbying and political influence in the U.K.
By MATT HONEYCOMBE-FOSTER
— Ministers are urged to get a move on with foreign influence laws after the latest China revelations.
— New kids on the block Strand Partners have some sage advice for businesses and No.10 in febrile times.
— Consumer group Which? says a long-delayed competition law could ease that cost-of-living crisis.
BEIJING BOTHER: The revelation that a suspected Chinese agent has been working to influence U.K. politicians certainly got tongues wagging in Westminster. But it’s also raised serious questions about whether the government is moving fast enough to rein in state actors who want to shape the debate in SW1.
Memory-hole: Long-in-the-tooth London Influence readers will remember that ministers have already faced calls from the intelligence and security committee — not to mention Tory MP Bob Seely and think tank the Henry Jackson Society — to arm Britain with a U.S. or Australian-style foreign agents registration act.
What’s that then? In essence, this would require anyone lobbying on behalf of a foreign power in the U.K. to declare that work or face sanctions. Seely, one of the more hawkish Tory MPs when it comes to China, even helpfully set out a sliding scale on the levels of disclosure that could be required and the kinds of punishments rule-breakers could face.
Why’s it needed? Luke de Pulford of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China — which has upped the pressure on ministers over Beijing’s treatment of the Uyghur people in recent months — predicts the Christine Lee revelations “won’t be the last.” He tells Influence the government “hasn’t just been slow to act — they’ve been reluctant.”
Golden error? “In some parts of Whitehall — especially the Treasury and FCDO — some are still naively clinging onto the ‘Golden Era’ in the face of all evidence,” de Pulford says, citing the long-dead David Cameron/George Osborne push for friendlier ties with Beijing.
Free pass: De Pulford says it was common during his time as a parliamentary pass holder to see people working for the Chinese Embassy able to roam the estate. Beijing, he warns, is intent on “elite capture” — with academics, big business and public affairs institutions all fair game when it comes to influence attempts. And he cites a “preponderance of former coalition government officials now working for Chinese companies” to hammer home the point.
But but but … The IPAC chief is also warning lawmakers against a “McCarthyite reflex” to the latest story — saying an unfocused witch-hunt would only serve to up the “brutal intimidation and surveillance” that the Chinese diaspora already faces from the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front Work Department. The UFWD explicitly aims to influence international opinion and policy in China’s favor, and critics argue it had a pretty free hand in the U.K. prior to last week’s intelligence service warning. There’s a good primer here from China author Ian Williams on how it goes about that.
So where are we at? Home Secretary Priti Patel — whose department is leading work on the long-promised influence law — sparred with her opposite number Yvette Cooper just this week over the pace of the plan. Patel told MPs she’s working on “new legislation to provide the security services and law enforcement agencies with the tools that they need to disrupt the full range of state threats.” The foreign agents law is part of that.
But but but … There was scant detail on when the proposals — subject to a consultation that wrapped up last summer — might actually be ready. “Work is underway, and there will be announcements in due course about the approach that the government are taking to new legislation on state threats,” Patel said. A Home Office spokesperson told us: “The government recently consulted on legislative proposals and are currently considering all the responses received in relation to the proposals within the consultation, which included a foreign agent registration scheme.” Not sure Westminster influencers working for hostile states will be packing their bags just yet.
STRAND AND DELIVER: It’s not every day a top former No.10 aide sets up shop in agency-land. Influence caught up with Nick Hargrave, a former special adviser to Theresa May and David Cameron, as his new outfit, Strand Partners, got to work.
Remind me? Hargrave was a speechwriter to Cameron and a SpAd to May. He also led opposition research for the Tories for two years. Since leaving government, he’s had senior gigs at Portland and been global public affairs director at Deliveroo. “I’ve now worked, I guess, in what you’d call the holy trinity — or unholy trinity — of government, agency and in-house,” he tells us. Working for himself has long been an ambition for the ex-SpAd, and one he’d mulled with Strand co-founder Sam Ingleby — now ex- of Portland for a fair old while. “I think we just came to a time in both our lives last year where both of us, at the same point, thought ‘well, why don’t we give it a go ourselves?'”
What Strand’s pitching: Hargrave says he’s instinctively skeptical of any agency that claims it’s got some magical unique selling point. But he’s promising a mix of sharp corporate comms advice and public policy brains. He says the fact the team’s spent time advising businesses (they’ve also nabbed ex-Portland consultant Nick Bonstow as director) means firms shouldn’t just expect ex-government types relaying “what people who are in Westminster are saying about you,” and expecting them to upend their complicated business plans as result. The team, he says, understands that firms have “different drivers and incentives.”
On the books: Strand starts “with a handful of clients,” Hargrave tells us, including two FTSE 100 businesses, although it’s keeping the names under its hat for now. The “sweet spot” for a Strand client, Hargrave says, would be “fundamentally a good business with a great product” facing “complicated policy issues” they need to be alive to. Amid the crowd of agencies in Westminster, he wants Strand to stand out for “quality of experience, quality of intelligence, quality of work ethic.” It’ll avoid a focus “on defined sectors” of public policy, he says, instead taking it case-by-case and aiming to help “fundamentally” good firms.
Free advice: Hargrave urges businesses wanting to engage with government to “understand the detail of the policy itself, and be prepared to have a proper robust conversation about the issue at hand.” They can’t, he says, just expect to pick up the phone to the right person in Whitehall and get something fixed. “I’m not sure that was ever true in the United Kingdom, but it’s certainly not true now,” he warns. Governments are generally pretty good at talking to those on the outside, he reckons, but “are always suspicious when businesses just turn up and say purely positive things.” Be honest, engage in the detail, and use good consultants, he says — natch.
Putting the party in transparency: Influence can’t resist picking Hargrave’s brain on the trouble facing Boris Johnson’s No. 10 at the moment. What would his advice be to Downing Street? The ex-aide urges “maximum transparency” from the government over lockdown parties, “no matter how tough the hit is at the start — because the 1,000 things coming out one after the other? That’s the thing that makes it very hard to get back.”
THINK OF THE CHILDREN: Battle lines are being drawn in campaign land after the Home Office launched a new media blitz — dubbed ‘No Place to Hide’ and drawn up by ad supremos M&C Saatchi — to take aim at online encryption.
Scaremongering: Rolling Stone first reported that the eye-opening campaign will focus on the argument that encryption makes it harder to tackle child exploitation online, with a distinctly Day Today-sounding stunt involving “placing an adult and child (both actors) in a glass box, with the adult looking ‘knowingly’ at the child as the glass fades to black.” Open Rights Group executive director Jim Killock said the “crass campaign shows how desperate the government is to scare people into supporting the ill-conceived Online Harms Bill.”
But but but … Child protection charities including Barnardo’s, the Lucy Faithful Foundation, the Marie Collins Foundation and SafeToNet, are fighting hard too. They’re backing the campaign and accusing social media giants of ducking responsibility. They want tech bosses to publicly commit to not rolling out end-to-end encryption “until they have the technology to ensure any changes do not make it easier for child sex abusers to commit crimes and avoid detection as a result.” Expect this one to run and run.
PUBLIC FIRST COURT WIN: Cheers at comms agency Public First as the Court of Appeal rejected an earlier High Court ruling that ministers showed “apparent bias” in awarding it an emergency coronavirus focus groups contract at the height of the pandemic. There’s a fair bit in the ruling that would make good ad copy for the agency, too, as it’s described as having done its job with “expert skill and care.” Agency boss James Frayne said: “Our research team worked unbelievably hard for 7 days a week – from early morning till late at night — during the height of the pandemic, helping refine messages that prevented many casualties.” His old government colleague Dominic Cummings is also pretty chuffed — but the Good Law Project, which challenged the deal, has vowed to fight on at the Supreme Court.
LORDS A-LEAPING: Good spot by My London’s Josiah Mortimer, who’s been waging a freedom of information battle to get public email addresses for members of the House of Lords. Lords authorities said they don’t forward “duplicate lobbying emails” — think petitions from groups like 38 Degrees — to the raft of peers who don’t make their contact details available online. Mortimer reckons that means some 500 members of the upper chamber can stay blissfully unaware of what’s riling up campaigners.
EVERY WHICH WAY: Want to help ease the cost of living crisis? Get tough with rip-off firms — and soon. That’s the message from campaign group Which? They want ministers to finally make good on a long-running pledge to shake up Britain’s competition and consumer protection policy.
Promises, promises: Theresa May entered office in July 2016 vowing to tackle “dysfunctional” markets with tough new powers to stop companies stifling competition and taking their customers for a ride. But the plans got sidetracked by that parliament’s non-stop Brexit drama, and, while May’s government finally started consulting on new powers for the. U.K.’s competition watchdog in 2019, a promised consumer white paper never turned up. The 2019 election manifesto had another bite of the cherry, with Boris Johnson’s Tories promising to give the Competition and Markets Authority “enhanced powers to tackle consumer rip-offs and bad business practices.” More than two years on, campaigners are still waiting.
What does Which? want? The group is lobbying for a Consumer and Competition Bill in the next Queen’s Speech. While Britain has long had a “pretty good consumer protection framework,” says Justin McMullan, principal policy adviser at Which?, there are a fair few holes that now need urgently plugging — especially when it comes to rapidly-evolving digital markets. They worry Britain is at risk of slipping behind international competitors precisely when voters are acutely concerned about the pennies in their pocket.
What would that include? First and foremost, the group wants to extend the powers available to the CMA because, argues McMullan, “there’s no point in having rules unless you enforce them properly.” The consumer rights group is concerned Britain’s system for holding companies to account for competition and consumer breaches is “really in quite a weak state,” with CMA investigations taking “years to conclude” and cases dragging on through the courts.
Fine time: The CMA relies too heavily on voluntary agreements with firms, Which? argues, and should be able to slap fines on offenders instead (something that would have a deterrent effect on other market abusers).
Global Britain? While Britain waits to act, other countries appear to be outpacing it in their competition and consumer protection set-ups. “One of the cases which literally dragged on for six years in the U.K. was the CMA tackling secondary ticketing markets — sites like Viagogo and StubHub,” says McMullan. “In Canada, the Canadian authorities had already ruled on it, and the moment the secondary ticketing websites broke the rules, they were slapped with a fine. It took one year.”
Where are we now? You guessed, it another consultation. The government’s latest opinion-gathering exercise wrapped up in the autumn and it’s vowing to promote “strong free markets, vigorous competition and high consumer standards that drive growth and productivity.” Ministers have even framed the plan as a Brexit dividend, with the government promising to “make the most of the U.K.’s departure from the European Union to revolutionise the way we protect the British public’s hard-earned money.”
But but but … It’s not quite that straightforward, suggests McMullan. He’s pleased that the government’s already promised to match EU consumer protections and rights, but says the bloc “was generally pretty good on consumer protection issues.” Jane Wallace, head of public affairs at Which?, says Britain needs to keep on the “front foot” post-Brexit, adding: “It would be to the detriment of people across the U.K. if we fall behind on this and take our eye off the ball.”
Why now? With, er, everything else on the government’s agenda at the moment, the techie-seeming area of competition and consumer policy might seem like a hard sell. But Wallace argues there are a whole host of solid political reasons ministers should make this a priority.
Confidence is a preference: The U.K. economy “is hugely reliant on consumer confidence and consumer spending,” she points out, and that’s something governments cannot take for granted “particularly at the moment when we’re looking at how we bounce back after such a difficult time during the pandemic.” If ministers are after tangible measures they can introduce to help voters before the next election, Wallace points out that a whole load of Whitehall work has already gone into this agenda. The government just needs to get cracking.
All the while … Britain’s cost of living crisis shows no sign of going away. Consumers, Wallace warns, “are going to be squeezed — so, more than ever before, people really want to make sure the money in their pocket is being spent well and that there are protections there to look out for them should things go wrong.”
Vicky Browning is taking a career break after five years heading up charity umbrella group
ACEVO. More here from Civil Society News.
Nick Reid — formerly of Engine MHP, Pfizer and Tory HQ — got started as U.K. government affairs director for
Quatro PR‘s eyeing a big expansion in the North of England under exec director
Tom Martin. Details here.
Victoria Dean got started this week as
Portland‘s deputy CEO after a stretch at Google.
Elliot Keck joined the
TaxPayers’ Alliance as investigations campaigns manager, after a stint with Conservative MP Andrew Rosindell. He’ll be focusing on the TPA’s wasteful spending campaign.
Matt Gillow moves on up to account manager at
Former Labour aide
Jake Kelly is moving on from managing public affairs at the
Civil Engineering Contractors’ Association.
Emma Panteli, a former senior Cabinet Office official who’s been heading up Serco defense engagement since 2020, has been named as head of government relations at space firm
Tom Corcoran is joining the government affairs team at
Qualcomm after a four-year stint heading up political and parliamentary affairs at Three.
Joe Karp-Sawey is moving from Global Justice Now to be a senior media adviser to the
People’s Vaccine Alliance.
Jobs jobs jobs:
RSA is looking for a head of media and public affairs … The
Center for Policy Studies is after a digital comms officer.
Events horizon: It’s Christmas for nerds (that means us) — the
Institute for Government‘s data-tastic Whitehall Monitor lands next Thursday, January 27, at 11.30 a.m. Be there and be square.
Thanks: Nobody would have told Influence that typos and libel were against the rules without ace editor
Paul Dallison and POLITICO’s
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