LONDON (Reuters) - Prime Minister David Cameron, embroiled in a tobacco lobbying scandal involving one of his top election strategists, will rush out new rules this week to try to clean up the shadowy world of political lobbying.
The bill, expected to be published by the government on Wednesday, will force political lobbyists to declare who is paying them to try to influence government policy.
The scandal, involving Lynton Crosby, an Australian advising Cameron on how to win the next election in 2015, erupted after the Conservative-led government said it was shelving plans to outlaw company branding on cigarette packets.
A spokesman for the tobacco giant Philip Morris Ltd confirmed it had hired a firm run by Crosby to advise it on a range of matters relating to its business in Britain.
The opposition Labour party has since asked Britain’s top civil servant to investigate whether Crosby played any role in the decision to shelve the packaging law.
On Monday, Cameron’s spokesman denied the prime minister had been susceptible to lobbying.
“Mr Crosby has never lobbied the prime minister on anything and he does not have any role in government policy,” he told reporters.
But the furore has undermined Cameron at the very moment he is trying to portray Labour as being in thrall to the trade union movement, something it denies.
It has also exposed strains in his coalition government. Some members of his junior partner, the Liberal Democrats, have demanded he fire Crosby to rid himself of what they say is an unacceptable conflict of interest.
“SCANDAL WAITING TO HAPPEN”
A senior Liberal Democrat source said that, after initial Conservative party reluctance to bring in lobbying legislation, the coalition was now united on the need for new laws.
Before he was elected in 2010, Cameron said political lobbying was “the next big scandal waiting to happen”.
“It’s an issue that crosses party lines and has tainted our politics for too long, an issue that exposes the far-too-cosy relationship between politics, government, business and money,” he said at the time.
However, he has since been criticised for failing to back his words with action.
Jon Trickett, a lawmaker for Labour, said: “Clearly Cameron is standing up for the wrong people. If this bill is about cleaning up lobbying, it should be used to clean up the lobbying at the heart of (Cameron’s office in) Downing Street.”
Labour would try to amend it to make it stricter, he added.
A series of cash-for-influence scandals have damaged the image of Cameron’s Conservative party, which is trailing Labour by up to 9 percentage points in the polls.
His government’s decision to delay plans to outlaw company branding on cigarette packets to allow it to see the impact of a similar decision in Australia has increased his discomfort.
“This looks like the old politics, which this government is still clinging to,” said Labour member of parliament Diane Abbott. “Decisions made behind closed doors through lobbying, and nods and winks to big business friends.”
A Conservative lawmaker who chairs parliament’s health select committee has said he will summon government ministers to explain their sudden change of heart.
Additional reporting by Peter Griffiths; Editing by Kevin Liffey