One of Britain’s most influential lobbyists secretly served as an adviser to a health minister for six months — before sending sensitive information on lockdown policy to paying clients.
[More on “Chumoracy” – Owl]
Gabriel Pogrund, Whitehall Correspondent www.thetimes.co.uk
George Pascoe-Watson is chairman of Portland Communications, a lobbying firm that represents pharmaceutical companies, weapons manufacturers and banks.
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) appointed Pascoe-Watson, 55, a former journalist, as an adviser during the pandemic’s first wave on April 9 without announcing the move.
He participated in daily strategic discussions chaired by Lord Bethell, a hereditary peer and former lobbyist who serves as test and trace minister, for six months. Bethell, 53, was a surprise appointment in March having chaired Matt Hancock’s leadership campaign in 2019 and giving a £5,000 donation. Hancock, the health secretary, and Baroness Harding, the head of test and trace, are understood to have joined calls including Pascoe-Watson and senior officials about how to communicate announcements and policy.
The disclosures will reignite the row over “chumocracy”. Pascoe-Watson is the latest person to have been given a role and access to Whitehall without any public process or announcement.
Civil servants expressed concerns about Pascoe-Watson’s role — which was unpaid — but he remained until October 7. On October 15, he emailed clients revealing he had been “privately advised” that restrictions in London launched that day would run to spring 2021, adding: “Decision-makers have told me personally.”
A fortnight later, Portland partners wrote to clients informing them that Boris Johnson was considering a national lockdown — and that he was likely to “announce next week that he is prepared to ‘sacrifice November to save December’”. The note came three days before details appeared in newspapers, prompting the PM to order a leak inquiry.
Whitehall sources insist Pascoe-Watson had no warning of the second lockdown, which was not discussed formally until after the October 29 email was sent.
Lord Feldman, a lobbyist and former chairman of the Conservative Party, also advised Bethell between March and May, a role that was not declared either.
Sir Alistair Graham, former chairman of the committee on standards in public life, said Pascoe-Watson’s appointment was “incomprehensible”. He said: “I think the public interest requires that appointments to public office should go through a public process.” Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, described it as an “insult to the British people” and called for an inquiry.
The DHSC and Pascoe-Watson declined to say whether he signed a confidentiality agreement. A friend said his role involved giving his thoughts on the “media landscape”.
Another Portland consultant and Tory peer, Lord O’Shaughnessy, was paid by the government for his work as an “external adviser” until August. O’Shaughnessy, 44, took part in a phone call with Bethell and Boston Consulting Group, a Portland client that has gone onto receive more than £20m in government contracts.
Portland has a number of former Tory advisers on its staff. It is owned by Omnicom, a New York media company with annual revenue of $15bn. Recent clients include Pfizer, Barclays and HSBC.
The DHSC said: “We have drawn on the expertise of a number of private sector partners who provided advice and expertise to assist in vital work.”
Pascoe-Watson said: “I fully declared my role and responsibilities at Portland Communications to the DHSC … the information shared with clients on October 15 and 29 was in no way connected to the test and trace calls, in which I was no longer a participant.”
O’Shaughnessy said his role had been approved by the DHSC and declared in his register of interests.