“Someone once said to me if the London population is going to go up, invest in rats: more people, more rats,” said Katie Perrior, former director of communications for Prime Minister Theresa May. “It’s quite simple: more regulation, more lobbying.”
The first opportunity for lobbyists is the government’s giant Repeal Bill, which parliament will begin debating Thursday. The legislation is the beginning of an effort that will make up a sizable bulk of the government’s work over the coming two years, ahead of Britain’s exit from the EU in March 2019.
The bill will copy all EU legislation into British law to ensure a smooth transition. And then — after three decades in which London outsourced to Brussels everything from housing regulations to labor codes to environmental controls — Westminster will be able to amend or discard whatever bits it wants.
Brexit has already shaken up British electoral politics. The effects of last year’s referendum vote, which brought down a popular prime minister, continue to reverberate. The snap election in June intended to end the political uncertainty only made it worse, depriving the Tories of their majority and badly weakening May.
Now Brexit is set to bring structural and cultural changes to how politics is done. As Britain potentially rethinks every law on its books and seeks to strike dozens of trade deals, there will be much more to fight over in Westminster. The stakes for domestic and foreign interests — and with them the size of lobbying budgets — are only going to rise.
“Every charity or business is taking this opportunity to lobby for a slight change in something” — Katie Perrior, Theresa May’s former director of communications
Even the coming months, before the U.K. actually leaves the EU, offers openings for clever lobbyists, as a weakened government considers changes and civil servants work to paper over incompatibilities — for instance references to EU institutions — between the two legal systems.
“Every charity or business is taking this opportunity to lobby for a slight change in something,” said Perrior, who returned to the PR firm she founded, iNHouse Communications, after leaving the government in April.
This surge in pressure to amend legislation is already starting to drive a corresponding surge in public affairs, PR and lobbying firms lining up to offer their advice.
Measuring the scale and revenue of the British lobbying industry, however, is easier said than done, with much of the work carried out by public affairs teams in house or undertaken by firms that also do more conventional public relations work.
There are two main registers of lobbyists and lobbying firms in the U.K., but neither is comprehensive. The U.K. government’s Registrar of Consultant Lobbyists has 141 entries of lobbyists and 1,398 listed clients.
Firms or individuals must register as lobbyists if they receive payment from clients for communications with a minister or senior official relating to government policy or procurement. No information is kept on the cost of lobbying or what issues are being lobbied about.
One estimate made by the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency — and used in 2015 by Transparency International, a charity whose investigations on lobbying in the U.K. have been part-funded by the European Commission — puts the annual spend on lobbying activities at around £2 billion and the number of people working in the industry at 4,000.
The 35 firms listed on the register that also appears in PR Week magazine’s top 150 consultancies — including major players like Portland, Hanover, and Bell Pottinger — had a combined U.K. revenue of more than £450 million in 2016, although this figure includes non-lobbying PR income.
This article is based on interviews with more than half a dozen senior figures in London’s public affairs industry, most of whom worked at the highest levels of government under Cameron and May.
Since the Brexit referendum, the field — which until recently was dominated by Blairites — has been flooded by a new wave of Tory consultants. Often ex-journalists or former political operatives, they’ve called time on their previous careers to command higher salaries guiding companies through the mess they’ve just escaped.
Craig Oliver, Cameron’s former director of communications, is now a senior managing director at the U.S. firm Teneo, which has a “Brexit client transition unit.”
Perrior, Oliver’s successor under May, has returned to iNHouse. Ameet Gill, Paul Stephenson and Lizzie Loudon — senior Conservative special advisers from different wings of the party — have joined forces to set up PR firm Hanbury Strategy, which has taken on big-name clients including Barclays.
Stephenson, who was the communications director for the Vote Leave campaign ahead of last summer’s referendum, said part of his new company’s early success was that it offered better connections to those currently in power.
“Many established public affairs firms are staffed with people who cut their teeth during the Blair years and clients have realized that they are not as well plugged in anymore,” he said.
The lobbyists interviewed for this article described an industry still struggling to get a hearing from a government machine barely able to cope with the enormous bureaucratic challenge of Brexit.
Many said they were playing a long game. They have yet to see a real Brexit boost to their bottom line but expect an uptick in business when the legislative process of leaving the EU clicks into gear this year.
“Brexit is the policy prism through which all public affairs work is now being conducted,” said Will Walden, managing director of Edelman U.K. and former chief adviser to the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. “It runs through everything the government does and provides the political context. So clearly there’s a huge demand from clients to know what, when, who and how.”
The main lobbying opportunity, according to the consultants, is the Repeal Bill. For the first time in 40 years, European regulation is amendable in Britain, opening the door to a raft of special interest groups.
“The prime minister is going to be inundated with MPs who want to speak to her or the chancellor [of the exchequer] about every other thing,” Perrior said.
Perrior said the irony of Brexit was that the explosion in lobbying is likely to mean Britain ends up amending EU regulations, effectively creating even more red tape than currently exists from Brussels — even though excessive regulation is often cited as one of the major bugbears of EU membership by Brexit supporters.
Perrior was also clear that the lobbying bonanza was not time-limited until the Repeal Bill becomes law. “It’s a 10-year program that we’re going to go into now,” she said.
The main factor shaping the lobbying landscape: the country’s rapidly shifting politics.
One senior consultant said U.K. CEOs — particularly those who aren’t British — are “scared to speak out” about Brexit so look to public affairs firms to come up with ways to get their message across without putting their head above the parapet.
“People worry that they will get a whole heap of shit poured on them by the Daily Mail for talking Britain down,” he said. “They are going to contract it out to trade bodies or new umbrella groups. This pools the risk.”
Lobbyists of all political stripes agree that the change at the top of government triggered by May’s loss of a parliamentary majority opened the government up to more outside influence.
Edelman’s Walden, who remains close to Foreign Secretary Johnson, said: “Post election I think there’s certainly a greater willingness in government to hear what business has to say on Brexit.”
The departure of “the chiefs” — the prime minister’s former chiefs of staff Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill — has left May severely weakened, and more easily pushed around by powerful MPs and members of her cabinet.
Those who worked in No. 10 before the election said the control exerted by May’s two powerful advisers was so strict that business leaders did not see the point in talking to anyone else in government — including the Brexit secretary or chancellor.
Since the election, Chancellor Philip Hammond has met regularly with the prime minister, according to senior Conservative officials, rather than always going through Timothy and Hill.
“The things people are lobbying about are just a drop in the ocean of other issues the government is dealing with” — A senior former government official
“It’s much more open, much more inclusive, the people in No. 10 now are asked their opinion and empowered to do their jobs,” Perrior said. “Cabinet ministers feel exactly the same.”
This change in culture is most clearly illustrated by David Davis — now freed from No. 10’s control — inviting business leaders and industry groups to his official mansion Chevening for a day-long meeting about Brexit.
There’s a catch, though. The scale of Brexit — and the lobbying opportunities it presents — could prevent public affairs firms from being as successful as they might hope.
“The government simply doesn’t have the bandwidth to deal with it,” said one senior former government official who did not want to be named and is now in the lobbying industry. “The things people are lobbying about are just a drop in the ocean of other issues the government is dealing with.”
“In order to lobby you need to get your arms around something and get traction,” he added. “But on Brexit, you reach out and it’s just a huge, amorphous hole. It’s so volatile and so disruptive.”
The former senior official in the Cameron government said there was “a degree of snake oil” about lobbying. “Anyone who tells you they’re the person who can get you heard in central government, they are not being entirely honest.”
Indeed, direct access to ministers remains much more restricted than in the United States, where lobbyists meet with politicians more frequently.
“The door in No. 10 isn’t really open to lobbyists,” said another former No. 10 official, now a political consultant. “The types who trade off the idea that they are in the know are actually just speaking to relatively junior special advisers.”
Another senior political consultant, who did not want to be named, said the lack of direct access often caused problems when dealing with American clients.
“Sometimes when you deal with American companies, there is a little bit of a culture clash,” the lobbyist said. “In the States, there’s a general expectation that you can help redraft legislation. That emphatically does not happen here.”
The former aide said: “That’s where the drinking culture comes in. They put on these drinks for special advisers on the basis of friendship and then ask them to do them a favor.”
One event targeted by former government aides turned lobbyists is the weekly special advisers’ drinks, organized by No. 10 aide Sheridan Westlake.
“In the U.S. it’s grown-up lobbyists having grown-up relationships,” he added. “In the U.K. ministers wouldn’t go for lunch with any lobbyist. In contrast [lobbyists] go for lunch with the No. 3 on a political team. It’s why special advisers — kids basically — are offered such huge sums to go to be lobbyists.”
A special adviser in government on £60,000 can go to earning over £100,000 at a public affairs firm. “There isn’t the experience to justify that salary,” the former aide said.
Advertising budgets are going down. Thought leadership budgets are going up.
The most innovative public affairs firms are giving up on traditional dinners or coffees in favor of new ways to drive conversation in Westminster.
One lobbying trick is to call yourself a trade body instead. “The lobbyists government ministers meet aren’t official lobbyists but industry groups,” one former No. 10 official said. “You can make the argument that it’s important to meet with these kinds of people.”
Others commission academic research in an attempt to depoliticize a policy debate.
“Pollsters and think tanks are experiencing a boom,” the consultant said. “Every sector worth their salt is asking for an evidence base to show why X will f–k over Y. Economic impact studies et cetera. Everyone needs an evidence base to deal with the government.”
Perrior said another new way of influencing the debate was putting on conferences. Advertising budgets are going down. Thought leadership budgets are going up. What CEOs want is to be on platforms with politicians.
“Talking for two hours about an issue is more successful than a quick 15-minute meeting at party conference,” she added. “They’re all in this space now where they want to be players at the top table.”