June 1, 2010 11:44 pm

Lobbyists flock to court Lib Dems

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For decades, the Liberal Democrats have toiled on the periphery of British politics, dreaming in vain of exercising power while attending policy committees that were – in the words of their MP Don Foster this week – the very definition of futility.

But Lib Dem officials and politicians are suddenly in big demand for the insights they can offer to those navigating the strange and uncharted waters of coalition government.

The party’s autumn conference is set to be deluged with lobbyists, business representatives and journalists, according to Lord Newby, Treasury spokesman for the Lib Dems in the House of Lords.

He predicts that the conference, normally a relaxed affair with minimal security, will look very different this year. “There is a great upsurge of demand by lobbyists to attend our conference this autumn,” he said.

The trend was confirmed by a Lib Dem press officer, who said: “We’ve seen an increase in registration and interest from commercial organisations for autumn conference, compared to the normal state of affairs this far away from the event.”

Staff members at Lib Dem headquarters in Cowley Street, Westminster, are likely to be entering the jobs market in the coming weeks because the party will no longer receive the “Short money” funding paid to assist opposition parties in parliament.

Their prospects of employment should be markedly rosier than they would have been before the party entered government.

One former Lib Dem staffer said his phone had been ringing constantly as lobbyists sought help to solve the mystery of how the party functioned. “They know the party is a different beast,” he said. “There is, of course, a left and a right, but it doesn’t work like Labour, where there are factions and blocs that act in reasonably predictable ways.

“Lib Dems are very individualistic – and it can be difficult to predict their stance on any one issue. They aren’t dogmatic.”

Peter Bingle, head of public affairs for Bell Pottinger – former employer of Jonny Oates, now a key Lib Dem aide in the coalition – said recently that these were “heady and exciting days” for public affairs consultants affiliated to the party.

“After years of being locked away in the cupboard and only being let out for birthdays, weddings, funerals and Southwark council’s planning committee, they are suddenly much in demand,” he wrote on his blog. “In the public affairs market, one good Lib Dem consultant is now worth at least 14 former Labour special advisers.”

Yet Cowley Street exiles seeking work in the private sector face stiff competition, as there are already a large number of Lib Dems in the public affairs industry, “because they couldn’t get a job in politics”, in Lord Newby’s tongue-in-cheek assessment.

High-profile figures include Roger Lowry, head of government affairs at RBS, Neil Sherlock, head of public affairs at KPMG, and Ian Wright, head of communications at Diageo.

James Gurling, a partner at Hanover, is a senior Lib Dem, as is Lord Clement-Jones, a partner at DLA Piper, and James Lundie at Edelman – now known to be the partner of David Laws, who resigned as chief secretary to the Treasury at the weekend.

One Lib Dem think-tank stalwart unwittingly summed up the new political dynamic when he answered a Financial Times phone call – only to break off the conversation swiftly. “I’m running late for a meeting at Downing Street,” he said.

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