Minister is friend of McDonald's consultant
Portillo faces revolt in 'Burgergate' row
By Andrew Pierce, Joanna Bale and James LandaleMichael Portillo, who is facing a revolt by previously Tory-voting constituents over plans to turn the local Conservative Association headquarters into a McDonald's restaurant, is a close friend of the company's political consultant.
Geoffrey Tucker, 71, who was director of communications at Conservative Central Office during the Heath Government, has been employed for years as a lobbyist to promote the McDonald's cause in Whitehall.
Many lifelong Tories in Mr Portillo's Enfield Southgate constituency predicted yesterday that the MP, who has a 15,563 majority, could lose his seat over his refusal to oppose the company's application for planning permission for the drive-through restaurant.
Residents suspicions that the McDonald's bid, £100,000 higher than the rival offers, was effectively a political donation will be fuelled by the revelation that local party chiefs plan to lend some of the proceeds of the sale to Central Office.
Mr Portillo, the Defence Secretary, was heckled at a packed public meeting on Tuesday night when he made clear that as a Cabinet minister he could not take sides because the planning decision could go to appeal and be adjudicated by the Environment Secretary. "We are then bound by collective responsibility," he said.
Mr Portillo was pictured last year on the other side of the counter at an existing McDonald's in Southgate, complete with uniform.
McDonald's has intimated to the local Conservative Association that it expects the application to be rejected by the local authority but to win on appeal. Efforts to win any appeal have begun.
The company's formidable lobbying operation is already under way. The company has impeccable contacts, Sir Bernard Ingham, Baroness Thatcher's former press secretary, is a non executive director of McDonald's. Mike Love, the company's director of communications, was the former Prime Minister's agent when she was MP for Finchley. Mr Love and Lady Thatcher are still close.
Mr Tucker, the architect of the Tories 1970 general election victory, has done most to smooth the path to the top of the political ladder for McDonald's. Mr Portillo and his wife Carolyn have stayed at Mr Tucker's villa in Lucca, Italy. Mr Portillo, William Waldegrave and Douglas Hurd were guests at his 70th birthday party at Brook's.
A McDonald's spokeswoman said: "Mr Tucker helps to arrange political dinners with ministers and MPs from all parties. We have no political affiliations. Mr Tucker also gives us political advice."
In February, the company hired as political consultants the Communication Group, which has strong links to the Labour party. A rival lobbyist said: "One suspects they decided to hire (the firm) now to prepare for life under a Labour government. It is a very politically astute company."
Few residents in the North London suburb doubted that McDonald's would triumph again. The blamed Mr Portillo. Eileen Fowler, 76, a Tory party member who lives opposite the double-fronted Victorian Conservative association headquarters said: "I will never vote for Portillo again if he allows this to go ahead."
Mrs Fowler added: "We've been let down very badly. The association is selling to the highest bidder without listening to the ordinary members like me, and Portillo says it's nothing to do with him. It's outrageous."
Her sister, Gwen Gilbertson, 78, who lives nearby, added: "My husband has written to Portillo, along with hundreds of others, but he refuses to take sides. How can he expect us to vote for him when he acts like this?" Reg Bird, 87, an association member, said: "Most at that meeting were Conservative voters like me, yet they were booing and heckling him. Portillo quite honestly is a twit. He just tried to hide behind everything."
In the entrance hall of the Conservative association is a letter to members from Lionel Zetter, the chairman, apologising for the fact that the first many of them heard about the £325,000 sale was through local newspapers, after McDonald's issues an "unauthorised" press release.
A spokeswoman for the association said yesterday: "This is a big old house which is being underused and is expensive to maintain. People who give money to the party want it to go on campaigning, not on repair bills."
McDonald's will fight all the way. It took 13 years to overcome the objections of Hampstead residents to it's plans but the company won in the end.
In Leicester last year, having suffered the indignity of losing a planning appeal, McDonald's took the case to the High Court and won.
Few local authorities can resist the approach known as a "carrot and stick" strategy. Local authorities are threatened with a long and costly appeal if planning permission is refused. Most cash-strapped town halls, informed by QCs that McDonald's always wins, duck the fight early on.
The lobbying is formidable. The company offers hundreds of jobs for unskilled workers. It's commitment to local communities is reinforced through charitable activities. Scope Communications' Management, whose advisers in the past have included the Tory MP Simon Burns, advises on the charity programme. Free sports equipment is donated to local youth groups, coffee mornings are arranged for pensioners and business forums set up for local companies. Opponents have labelled the tactics "bribes to the community".
Occasionally, the operation comes unstuck. Last year, plans for a 190-seat "drive-through" restaurant in Finchley were rejected by Barnet council. For once McDonald's did not appeal.