Conservative party under fire after ex-soldier allegedly failed to declare £2,000 paid by journalists in sting operation
The Conservative party was left reeling by sleaze allegations after an MP resigned from the parliamentary party for allegedly failing to declare thousands of pounds paid by a fake lobbying firm in a damaging journalistic sting.
Patrick Mercer, MP for Newark, stepped down from the party’s whip after accepting £4,000 from undercover reporters posing as lobbyists. He failed to declare £2,000 of the money within parliamentary rules and offered to secure a Westminster security pass for the lobbyist, it is understood.
The disclosure will make uncomfortable reading for David Cameron, who is under pressure for failing to introduce promised legislation to shine a light on the activities of lobbying companies. One Conservative source said: “The PM wanted sleaze allegations to be a thing of the past but they are coming thick and fast now.”
Mercer, who has a majority of over 16,000, said he was resigning the Tory whip immediately “to save my party embarrassment”, and would not stand again at the next general election.
His action comes before a BBC Panorama programme, made in conjunction with Daily Telegraph journalists, which will allege that he broke lobbying rules. The programme is expected to make other potentially damaging allegations against MPs and peers willing to accept money from lobbyists. Mercer is expected to argue that he was the victim of entrapment, not legitimate reporting.
The MP has been covertly recorded by BBC reporters posing as lobbyists who allegedly paid him to lobby on behalf of Fiji. Mercer – a former army major who completed nine tours in Northern Ireland and who has been highly critical of the prime minister – was approached by a fake firm called Alistair Andrews Communications around seven weeks ago.
Panorama said the fake company aimed to lobby on behalf of Fijian business interests for the country to be readmitted to the Commonwealth. Fiji’s membership was suspended in 2009 amid criticism of its human rights record and lack of democracy.
Mercer set up an all-party group and asked a number of questions for a pro-Fiji group by the lobbyists who he now knows were undercover reporters. He signed a contract with the firm that would guarantee payments of £2,000 a month and received a total of £4,000 for consultations over the period. Last week, he declared the money, but the first £2,000 was not declared within four weeks, which is a breach of House of Commons rules.
Mercer is expected to claim that he was urged by undercover journalists to break parliamentary rules but did not do so. He was asked to write a report which would conclude that Fiji should be readmitted to the Commonwealth, it is understood, but he declined to do so.
The MP indicated that he was prepared to issue proceedings against the broadcaster and newspaper. He said: “Panorama are planning to broadcast a programme alleging that I have broken parliamentary rules. I am taking legal advice about these allegations and I have referred myself to the parliamentary commissioner for standards. In the meantime, to save my party embarrassment, I have resigned the Conservative whip and have so informed [the chief whip] Sir George Young.”
Mercer’s constituency appeared to be standing by him last night, even though he is now no longer a Tory MP. Stuart Wallace, chairman of the Newark Conservative Association, said: “Until such time as the investigation is concluded, Patrick will be an independent member of parliament and not subject to the rules of the local party.”
But Conservative MPs called for the government to stand by its pledge to introduce powers which allow voters to recall errant MPs.
Zac Goldsmith, Tory MP for Richmond Park and North Kingston, wrote on Twitter: “If it’s bad enough for you to resign from your party, how can it be OK to continue representing constituents at all? Where’s that recall?!”
Campaigners said Cameron must now react to Mercer’s resignation. Peter Facey, the director of the campaign group Unlock Democracy, said: “Having failed to take action over the last three years, it is long past time David Cameron took a lead on this issue. The government must now legislate for a robust register of lobbying activity and crack down on both the links between all party groups and commercial interests and the ability for MPs and peers to work as paid consultants.”A Conservative party spokesman said: “The prime minister is aware. He thinks Patrick Mercer has done the right thing in referring himself to the parliamentary commissioner for standards and resigning the whip.
“It’s important that the due processes take their course.”
A spokeswoman for the standards commissioner, Kathryn Hudson, said she had not yet received Mercer’s self-referral and would consider the case for an investigation once she had had the chance to consider it.