Much of the media comment so far about Jonathan Hopkin Hill's nomination as the UK commissioner for the new Juncker commission has focussed on what it will mean for a possible Brexit (a British exit from the EU, pending a potential in-out referendum in 2017). A surprising number of political pundits have welcomed his lobbyist background as proof of his wheeler-dealer ability to strike backroom deals. It may be that this is why David Cameron, UK prime minister, has nominated him in the first place.
Hill's background as the “most senior former lobbyist in Government” is not in doubt; he has been through the revolving doors of UK politics to the lobby industry and back again on numerous occasions. In the 1980s, he went from ministerial special adviser to Lowe Bell Communications; in the 1990s, he went from No 10 Policy Unit to Bell Pottinger Communications; and most recently, he moved from Quiller Consultants (which he co-founded in 1998) to ministerial office and, until yesterday, leader of the House of Lords, the UK's unelected upper chamber.
According to yesterday's House of Lords' register of interests, Hill remains a shareholder in Huntsworth plc, the international public relations business, which bought Quiller in 2006 for £5.9 million. Huntsworth also owns the major Brussels lobbying outfit Grayling. When asked to declare how much his shares were worth, Hill's spokesperson apparently declined to answer, although the media has alleged that they are worth “at least £50,000”. Interestingly, Hill does not refer to his Huntsworth shareholding in the list of ministerial interests.
Hill's revolving door background and ongoing shareholding in Huntsworth have provoked accusations of conflicts of interest. Quiller clients have previously included companies with government contracts including A4e and PriceWaterhouseCoopers. And in 2013, the Daily Telegraph alleged that Hill, while an education minister, had intervened in government policy-making to support plans to sell state school playing fields to Tesco, which was also a client of Quiller at the time.
Quiller's most recent client list includes HSBC bank, the City of London Corporation and Telefonica O2, as well as the Syrian Opposition Coalition and a foreign government: the United Arab Emirates. Quiller's website makes clear that it offers EU-level lobbying services although it is not registered in the EU's transparency register.
Quiller is packed with former advisers to the Conservative party and its ministers. As Spinwatch's Tamasin Cave has commented: “There’s a reason why companies employ Quiller and it’s for their close ties to the Tories at the heart of Government.”
In a 2010 speech which he may well regret by now, Cameron said of lobbying: “It is 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 … we all know how it works. The lunches, the hospitality, the quiet word in your ear, the ex-ministers and ex-advisors for hire, helping big business find the right way to get its way.”
Sending a revolving door ex-lobbyist to represent the UK in Brussels is a bizarre and retrograde step by Cameron, especially as today he will be lobbying his fellow EU leaders hard to secure a heavy-weight economics portfolio for Hill. And the nomination, coming as it did on the day that the new commission president Jean-Claude Juncker announced a commitment to a mandatory lobby register and proactive transparency, has sent completely the wrong message; all incoming commissioners need to be fully committed to the agenda of full lobby transparency. If Juncker wants to take citizens' concerns over lobbying influence in Brussels seriously, he should reject Hill from becoming a member of his team.
The UK needs to be represented in Brussels by someone who is entirely free of links to the UK and EU lobby industries and has absolutely no potential conflicts of interest. The 179 MEPs who signed-up to the Politics for People pledge to “stand-up for citizens and democracy against the excessive lobbying influence of banks and big business” will no doubt have big questions for candidate-commissioner Hill when he comes before them in the confirmation hearings in September – if he is still the UK nominee by then.
Update - 17 July
"There is no shame in having worked for the private sector. The question is conflicts of interest. If it comes to a hearing, someone with a past in lobbying can expect to be grilled with double the energy. We want to reduce the influence of lobbying and we don’t want to let the wolves into the sheep fold."