David Cameron last night faced being dragged into a damaging ‘lunches for lobbyists’ scandal over a £400 million property scheme.
The Prime Minister was challenged by Labour to ‘come clean’ about his links to Simon Hoare, the lobbyist at the centre of the row over plans for a massive rail freight terminal.
No 10 has already been accused of a ‘whitewash’ after Cabinet Minister Theresa Villiers was last week cleared of wrongdoing over a private lunch with Mr Hoare – at which the development on a former airfield in Hertfordshire was allegedly discussed.
But Labour last night switched the attack on to Mr Cameron’s own links with the lobbyist, a Tory member of the West Oxfordshire council that covers the Prime Minister’s Witney constituency, and has been pictured with him on election leaflets.
Labour claimed Mr Hoare was a ‘close friend’ of Mr Cameron and demanded to know if the two men had ever discussed the rail depot project first proposed in 2006, which is still awaiting approval from Ministers.
Shadow Cabinet Office Minister Jon Ashworth said the Prime Minister must answer a series of questions over his relationship with Mr Hoare, chief lobbyist for rail depot developers Helioslough.
That included whether he had been invited to No 10 by Mr Cameron and how many times the Prime Minister had met him without officials present since 2010.Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood last week rejected a complaint from St Albans Tory MP Anne Main over Ms Villiers lunching with Mr Hoare in 2011 when she was a Transport Minister.
After the lunch, Mr Hoare reportedly emailed asking her to ‘press the case for a speedy and supportive decision’.
Sir Jeremy insisted Ms Villiers, now the Northern Ireland Secretary, took no action as a result of the lunch which she described as a ‘personal engagement with a long-standing friend’.
Simon Hoare (left) is at the centre of a row over the £400m rail depot project. Last week Cabinet Minister Theresa Villiers (right) was cleared of wrongdoing over a private lunch with the lobbyist
But Mr Ashworth said Mr Cameron should not have referred the complaint to the Cabinet Secretary – given his personal links with Mr Hoare.
The Labour frontbencher said: ‘He should have passed it outside the remit of No 10 to the independent adviser on Ministers’ interests.’
Last night, Mrs Main – who has branded Sir Jeremy’s inquiry a ‘whitewash’ – declined to comment on the Prime Minister’s links with Mr Hoare.
But the local MP, a fierce opponent of the plan to build five warehouses with railway sidings on the Hertfordshire greenbelt, revealed she had resubmitted her complaint about Ms Villiers.
In a letter to the Cabinet Secretary, she accused him of seemingly not even considering the ministerial code requiring Ministers to ‘ensure that no conflict arises, or could reasonably be perceived to arise, between their public duties and their private interests’.
Mrs Main added: ‘Many of my constituents believe Ms Villiers’s actions directly point to a conflict of interest, so there is at least the perception of a conflict.’
But No 10 last night denied any wrongdoing.