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Sunday, October 3, 1999 Published at 12:53 GMT 13:53 UK

UK: Scotland

'Lobbygate' sets the parliament alight

Those who predicted that the new Scottish Parliament would fail to 'set the heather alight' might now be persuaded to change their minds if the events of the last week were anything to go by.

The Scottish political scene was dominated by one story, neatly dubbed 'Lobbygate' or more loosely the 'cash-for-access' row, which raised questions about the actions of ministers and indeed the whole parliament.

The Observer newspaper started the whole thing off with its secret recordings of Kevin Reid, the lobbyist son of the Scottish Secretary, and a colleague from the lobbying arm of Beattie Media allegedly telling a journalist posing as a businessman they had influence with ministers.

[ image: Kevin Reid and Alex Barr were at the centre of the row]
Kevin Reid and Alex Barr were at the centre of the row
It led to a firestorm which engulfed the Scottish Executive in particular and threw the spotlight, once again, on the relationship between the Scottish secretary and first minister. And perhaps, of wider concern, was the issue of the effectiveness of the Scottish Parliament in sorting out what was becoming a messy situation.

While Scottish First Minister Donald Dewar rushed to the defence of his ministers - a line which he has held throughout the week, Scottish Secretary Dr John Reid launched a bitter attack on the tactics of The Observer and said his son had done nothing wrong. Beattie Media, meanwhile, apologised to the ministers involved for any embarrassment caused.

The reactions of the two political leaders were in stark contrast and re-focused attention on the reported political power struggle between the two arms of government in Scotland.

'Donald and I'

However, by the end of the week and after further reports of rows which were fiercely denied by Dr Reid in particular, attention was falling back on the ministers allegedly involved.

[ image: Donald Dewar and Dr John Reid dismiss 'turf war' claims]
Donald Dewar and Dr John Reid dismiss 'turf war' claims
With Labour's annual conference under way in Bournemouth, talks of rifts and scandal were the last thing party spin doctors needed and it was notable that the tremors north of the border failed to make a dent on the party at its annual showpiece.

Indeed, some experts suspected Dr Reid was going the 'extra mile' to rebuff reports of tension, telling activists at a fringe meeting that while there were bound to be difficulties associated with devolution "Donald and I" were determined to sort them out. Was this a reference to the 'King and I' and was Dr Reid prepared to play Deborah Kerr to Donald Dewar's Yul Brynner?

On Wednesday, the drama moved to the environs of the parliament proper, but not before Jack McConnell, the Finance Minister who was a former employee of Beattie Media and about whom the most damaging allegations were made, denied any wrongdoing.

[ image: Jack McConnell has consistently denied any wrongdoing]
Jack McConnell has consistently denied any wrongdoing
The Observer delivered transcripts and a copy of its 'Lobbygate' film to the standards committee later that morning. The committee had been due to discuss lobbying companies but the newspaper allegations brought the issue into sharp focus.

However, the committee's handling of the affair on Wednesday morning raised serious questions about its effectiveness, never mind the newspaper claims.

Legal action

There were clear divisions and indeed tensions, particularly between convener Mike Rumbles and Scottish National Party member Tricia Marwick.

And amid confusion over how to proceed, Mr Rumbles blocked open discussion of the allegations, stating that parliamentary convention barred claims against individual MSPs being heard in open session.

The committee agreed to reconvene on Tuesday, in private session, to set out the terms of reference for an inquiry.

The issue has since prompted legal action by The Scotsman newspaper, which is demanding public hearings but it is now uncertain whether or not that action will go ahead amid reports that the committee will support public sessions.

[ image: Mike Rumbles: Under fire over standards committee]
Mike Rumbles: Under fire over standards committee
On Thursday, Donald Dewar bowed to pressure and made a statement to the parliament, saying he was satisfied ministers had been exonerated. He rejected and indeed ridiculed the assertions by Beattie Media staff that they had a direct line to ministers but faced attacks from the opposition and in particular SNP Leader Alex Salmond who questoned his commitment to the inquiry and said Beattie Media's apology should not be the end of the mattter.

Shortly after Mr Dewar finished his speech, Beattie Media announced it had shut the lobbying arm of its operation and Kevin Reid's job was under review. It was a political spin doctor's dream and as if the parliament's proceedings that day and the announcement by Beattie were part of some well-staged media event - the sort of thing which has made boss Gordon Beattie's company so successful.

By the weekend the matter had failed to die down and even a display of unity by Dr Reid and Mr Dewar as they signed the concordats setting out the 'ground rules' for relations between London and Edinburgh provided little distraction.

Indeed, while Dr Reid was once again providing an energetic portrayal of harmonious relations, Mr Dewar seemed uncharacteristically ill-at-ease in the media glare on Friday.

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