There’s a word for paid-for political access: corruption.
When George Osborne’s Evening Standard published a fawning interview with his former colleague and ally Ruth Davidson today, she declared that she’s got a new job. Davidson stood down as leader of the Conservative Party in Scotland this summer, and clearly feels she has time to spare. Although she will stay on as the Member of the Scottish Parliament for Edinburgh Central until 2021, now she will be also be a senior advisor to Tulchan Communications, a London-based lobbying and public relations firm.
In many countries, this would be seen as utterly shocking. Democracy can’t work if elected politicians sell access to themselves, their platforms and their influence. This is why, in the past, politicians were smuggled wads of cash in brown envelopes: when they wanted to undermine the democracy that gave them power and paid their wages, they had to do so in secret.
But in modern Britain, Davidson doesn’t need to be surreptitious. She knows she can rely on a pliant newspaper, run by one of her mates, to break the story in a friendly way. After all, her experience of funding significant electoral success with large piles of dark money consisted largely of being lauded by the media.
Davidson insists in her Standard interview that she won’t be lobbying government ministers, which is probably true: her name is mud with both Nicola Sturgeon’s administration and Boris Johnson’s. Instead, she says, she will be “helping people get ahead of where it is going, letting them know what government thinking is”.
She will, in other words, be selling access to information she has gained from her privileged position as an MSP and, until recently, the UK government’s party leader in Scotland. She will be helping the highest bidder to navigate the corridors of power in parliaments and the press, while she’s still paid to represent the people of Edinburgh Central.
Her new boss, Tulchan’s managing partner Andrew Feldman, put it clearly, saying the firm would “benefit immensely from her... unique perspective” – that perspective, of course, being the view from the back benches of the Holyrood chamber.
Even the public relations trade body, normally not there to criticise lobbying firms, has denounced her appointment. Its director general Francis Ingham said to the BBC: “it’s simply wrong for lobbying agencies to employ legislators. The possible conflicts of interest are clear, and damages the reputation of both the industry, and the political process.”
Colleagues insist that Davidson will have enough time to do both roles (and also chair an advisory committee for Scottish TV). But the truth is, her constituents should have equal access to their MSP, not have to queue for access behind corporate clients.
If this sounds personal, that’s because it is. Until recently, I lived in Edinburgh Central, Davidson’s constituency. I would walk each day through streets lined with homeless people, asking for enough to get a hostel bed, often on freezing Scottish nights. Over the road from the Scottish Parliament – in Davidson’s patch – is Dumbiedykes: 1960s tower blocks whose residents have been impoverished as decades of regeneration schemes in the Old Town have served property development firms only too well.
The constituency contains all of the contradictions of British life: extreme wealth and deep poverty; the castle towering above and the Cowgate crawling below. It hosts hostels for homeless people and hotels for millionaires, the famous festival and oversubscribed food banks. It deserves full-time representation.
And, more importantly, the people of Edinburgh Central – and particularly those most failed by the state – need an MSP who puts their needs first, not one who sells access to herself to the highest bidder.
According to the Standard, Davidson will be paid £50,000 for 24 days’ work a year on behalf of the firm’s clients: more than £2,000 a day. An MSP’s salary is £63,000 a year – about £250 a day. Clearly, Davidson’s Edinburgh Central constituents can’t afford their own MSP.
Who will Davidson represent now?
So, who are Ruth Davidson’s new constituents?
Tulchan has a long list of clients on its website. Among them are private water companies – firms that one might imagine would be keen to secure better access to the government in Scotland, the UK’s only remaining publicly run water market.
There’s also the French energy company Engie, which was fined £2 million last month for manipulating wholesale gas prices. Can the quarter of households in Scotland who suffer from fuel poverty be confident that Davidson will take off her hat as Engie’s spin doctor when she’s sat in the Holyrood chamber?
The firm also represents Petrofac, one of the leading service providers to the offshore oil and gas industry, which for some reason isn’t registered particularly near any oil fields, but in Jersey. And there’s Vivo Energy, another oil company, which works with Shell across Africa.
As the climate crisis accelerates, can the thousands of school strikers who have marched through Davidson’s constituency more than once in recent months expect her to hear their voices as clearly as she does those of her new boss’s client? In fact, in 2007, Tulchan was the target of climate activists Rising Tide, because it represented Drax, the then coal power station that that was western Europe’s biggest single polluter.
Tulchan also represents a firm discreetly called QIA, which stands for Qatar Investment Authority. It is effectively the government of Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund. QIA is the majority owner of Canary Wharf Group Investment Holdings, the biggest property owner in London. One can imagine that the sultanate will be glad that their spin doctors have now employed the representative for one of the most prestigious areas of real estate in the UK.
I could go on. The list of Davidson’s new constituents is long. But the bottom line is simple.
Everything Davidson has done is legal – for now. But it shouldn’t be. Politicians should not be allowed to work for lobbying firms. It should be illegal. Ruth Davidson should stand down from her seat, or have the whip withdrawn.
There’s a word for paid-for political access: corruption.