Monsanto lobbyist meets culture of deceit
No 10's new communications chief gives up share options
By Melissa Kite, Political Correspondent
The Times (London), 1 September
TONY BLAIR'S new director of communications renounced his share options in a company involved with GM foods yesterday, in an attempt to head off a row over his appointment.
David Hill, who takes over from Alastair Campbell in the autumn, said that by resigning from the lobbying and public relations company Chime Communications, for which he has been working as a director, he was giving up an estimated 95,000 share options.
The revelation of a possible conflict of interests had threatened to overshadow a reorganisation of No 10 aimed at ending the culture of spin.
Mr Blair will this week announce details of a structure for No 10 that is expected to remove the power once wielded by Mr Campbell to give orders to civil servants. The informal coterie of political advisers that has worked with Mr Blair for six years is expected to be replaced with a tighter system putting senior civil servants back in charge. It has been suggested that Downing Street spin-doctors will have to re- port to a top-ranking civil servant with control of the entire government news network.
The Cabinet Office is also expected to announce in the coming weeks the outcome of a review of the Government's communications strategy, with further reforms possible. The Phillis review, of which Mr Hill was a member, will report on how the relationship between political advisers and civil servants should be redefined.
Downing Street moved swiftly to neutralise the row over Mr Hill, who is director of Good Relations, which is owned by Chime and whose clients include Monsanto, the biotechnology giant. Mr Hill contacted his employer, Lord Bell, yesterday to clarify the status of his shares. A spokesman for No 10 said: "David Hill has been in touch with Chime today and he has found that his share options lapse when he resigns from the company. By the time he joins No 10 he will no longer have share options in Chime."
Earlier Michael Meacher, who was dismissed as Environment Minister this year, said that Mr Hill's links with Monsanto made him unfit for the role. As a PR consultant Mr Hill apparently charged £225 an hour for advice to the US biotech company, which is at the centre of a row over the safety of genetically modified crops. Mr Meacher said: "I am concerned at Mr Blair's judgment. I am concerned that the new director of communications used to be employed as a paid lobbyist for Monsanto."
Mr Hill was reluctant to accept his new post and is facing a salary cut. One option is for the Government to pay him a "golden hello" to compensate him for the surrender of his share options. Had he retained them it would have made any future decisions in No 10 on GM foods open to suspicion.
Downing Street, however, insisted that Mr Hill would fulfil both the special advisers' code of conduct and the Civil Service management code. The latter states that civil servants must "not be involved in taking any decision which could affect the value of their private investments or the value of those on which they give advice to others; or use information acquired in the course of their work to advance their private financial interests or those of others".
The Campbell departure has produced a new round of speculation about another comeback for Peter Mandelson. Yesterday the former Northern Ireland Secretary denied that he had been given any formal role but confirmed that he was continuing to advise Mr Blair behind the scenes.
Iain Duncan Smith claimed that the departure of Mr Campbell would not mean an end to the culture of spin. "The Prime Minister cannot distance himself from the failure of his Government, or the abuse of its power," the Conservative leader said in an article in The Independent on Sunday. "For new Labour is not just a cast of miserable characters, it's a culture - a culture of deceit."