'This is an opportunity to set out your stall for politicians'

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THE phone call yesterday to the senior party official only took 10 minutes but it confirmed plenty: Scotland's new ministerial team are for hire.

The party is busy at present, preparing for its annual conference. To be held at Aviemore's Highland Resort, it promises to be a remarkable occasion: the first time the SNP will meet in its 80-year history as a party in power.

Hard-headed and professional as ever, the party's slick back room machine is now determined to exploit every penny.

For between 8,500 and 9,500, either Alex Salmond, Nicola Sturgeon, or another of the SNP's ministerial team can be hired to offer a speech at what the party managers are touting as "premier fringe events". Firms will also be given the chance to put their case direct to the minister.

For the more personal touch, 950 will give you a slap-up lunch with John Swinney on the party's "Corporate Day". To be held in the resort's Peregrine Suite, the Finance Secretary will be joined by other SNP MSPs and MPs "to discuss any topic and meet with other organisations".

Posing yesterday as a public affairs consultant representing clients in the energy sector, a Scotland on Sunday reporter called SNP party clerk Ian McCann, one of the key figures organising the event. McCann confirmed beyond doubt that by handing over a cheque, private firms will have carte blanche this October to seek to influence and cajole ministers to their way of thinking.

McCann was asked first about the premier fringe meetings. Once you had paid the money what would you get?

"It is an opportunity to sort of set out your stall as to what you do and who you are and such like and there is a chance to discuss that with the politicians and the delegates as well," he replied.

The events with Salmond and Sturgeon are already sold out, McCann confirmed. Only a breakfast meeting on Sunday, October 28, remains free. McCann helpfully pointed out that other ministers were available.

"If it is energy then Jim Mather might be your best bet or maybe Richard Lochhead who is the Environment Minister or Mike Russell who handles climate change stuff as well," he said.

And would our 'clients' get a chance to put their case to ministers?

"Yeah, well, certainly, it is a good way of touching base, particularly if you haven't got any track record in Scotland," replied McCann. "Ministers like to keep on top of who the main players are and such, and certainly anyone looking to come into the market they would no doubt be very keen to see what they are about and see what their plans are."

He added: "It is sometimes better to see them in the flesh and get a feel for what they are about. It is a good opportunity for people to hear what our plans are in the economic sphere over the next few years and see how that might chime with what you want to do business wise as well."

Salmond was not available for one-to-one meetings, McCann said. But, he added, ambitious businessmen and women would have plenty of opportunities to get hold of him.

"If people are up there as observers for a couple of days there is a fair chance they can just buttonhole him at any point and say we are here or we are doing this fringe meeting, nice to meet you," he said.

With as many as 50 guests likely to pay between 470 and 850 for the lunch with Swinney, the party stands to rake in anywhere between 23,500 and 42,500 for the event. The fringe events will bring in between 68,000 and 76,000. In 2005, when the party last held a conference in Aviemore, sponsors were charged just 3,000 to back an event. The kudos of government is clearly already proving to be a nice little earner.

All this is far cry away from just a few years ago when the SNP appeared to be on the brink of going broke.

The SNP's tactics tap into a grey area of ministerial ethics. The Scottish ministerial code states that ministers should judge themselves whether accepting invitations places them at a risk of "real or perceived obligation" to private companies.

It adds: "Ministers need to be sensitive to the risk that private sector interests might occasionally attempt to use occasions to exercise improper influence and lobby the minister."

And it goes on: "Ministers should also avoid promoting an individual company's products or services by association."

However, there is no formal means of complaint. It is the First Minister himself who decides whether or not there has been a breach.

The huge sums being charged by the SNP to meet ministers reflect a raft of other inflated prices at this year's conference. Sponsoring a 'standard' fringe event - without a keynote speaker - has itself risen from 1,300 two years ago to 2,350 today.

Back in 2005, a one-day pass to the event for a non-party member cost 50, allowing access to debates, fringe events and schmoozing in corridors and bars. This year the charge has rocketed to 176.

Hardened policy wonks, lobbyists and political anoraks who want to experience the full three days now face an eye-watering bill for 412 compared with just 150 two years ago.

Another big part of any party conference are the stands are which various organisations try to get their message across to delegates. The charge for a typical exhibition stand has gone up relatively modestly from 2,000 to 2,250 but the width has been cut from three metres to 2.5m.

Charities get preferential rates for stalls but they have also been hit hard by the SNP's sudden acquisition of a Midas Touch. The minimum price they will have to pay for a stall has soared from 120 to 350.

And the conference handbook - which is given free to all delegates and details all speeches, motions and election candidates - has become a significantly more expensive place to advertise, with the rate for a full page increasing from 2,500 to 3,525.

Other chances to sponsor events and receptions around the conference include the Saturday morning Donaldson lecture, which will be chaired by Salmond and which will set the sponsor back 5,000.

And the conference media reception, starring Salmond and Sturgeon, can be sponsored for 5,000.

How the Nationalists made their money grow

SMART management and the painstaking wooing of rich donors has turned the SNP from a financial basket-case into Scotland's top-spending political party.

Following the 1999 Scottish election, the party was near to bankruptcy and had to sell its HQ in Edinburgh's salubrious North Charlotte Street to ease its debts.

Faced with a collapse in opinion poll ratings three weeks before the May 1999 election, the Nationalists had tried to spend their way out of defeat. One of their most controversial and expensive tactics was publishing a free newspaper, Scotland's Voice, which cost 150,000 in its last week alone.

After their defeat at the hands of Donald Dewar's Labour in 1999, the party was 600,000 in the red and open arguments raged between leader Alex Salmond and treasurer Ian Blackford.

While the deficit might seem comically small compared with the 23m Labour overdraft, the situation was deadly serious.

With no prospect of huge cash bail-outs from the unions or big business backing that Labour or the Tories could expect, and with a membership hovering around the 10,000 mark, they could not afford to be too long in the red. To make matters worse, new laws banning foreign cash for parties had cut off the flow from their most famous donor, Sir Sean Connery, and his 50,000 a year.

They cleared their overdraft by selling their HQ for 600,000. Although John Swinney, who succeeded Salmond as leader, failed to make an impact on the voting public, his most crucial legacy to the party was to sort out both the party structure and their finances.

He put veteran businessman Jim Mather in charge of streamlining the party and keeping costs down. The strategy was to minimise spending on UK and European elections and save the cash for Holyrood polls. As well as reorganising the party's own operations, Mather - a former IBM executive - set up a series of meetings with top figures in Scottish business.

The wooing had political as well as financial goals. Business antagonism to the Nationalists was widely seen as having cost them the 1999 election.

If they could be persuaded to back the SNP, or at least not support the others, then they would boost the party politically. In addition, the party got members to set up direct debits to central funds, rather than donate to local parties.

And earlier this year, the party coffers were boosted by a series of high-profile and high-value donations. Sir Tom Farmer, the founder of Kwik-Fit, gave 100,000. Ian Watson, the Glasgow-born chairman of mining development group Galahad Gold, offered 50,000. In March, Stagecoach tycoon Brian Souter gave 500,000.

The savings and gifts left the SNP with the biggest election fund of any of the parties. With 1.5m it was even able to outspend Labour. The money went on phone-canvassing, targeted mailshots, and high-quality leaflets for wooing undecided voters. The result was that the party defeated Labour in May for the first time in its history.