The question isn't so much "did Eric Pickles eat all the pies?", it's "who paid for the pies, and how many did he declare in the register of members' interests?". TBIJ is on an absolute tear on Tory lobbying stories at the moment, and the combination of photo and caption for the Eric Pickles one is masterly.
But this story reveals more than it says. So, four cabinet ministers accepted donations to their private offices since May, 2010. Those would be William Hague, George Osborne, Liam Fox, and Michael Gove, or to put it another way, most of Atlantic Bridge and the core of the neo-conservative group within the Conservative Party. I do not think this is a coincidence.
Curiously, it seems that if you get donations to your private office you don't also get them to your constituency party branch and vice versa, with the exceptions of George Osborne and Michael Gove, who would have more jam on it, wouldn't they?
Pickles, for his part, received zero, which makes perfect sense. You can't eat money, and as for spending it on unofficial advisers, that only makes sense if you ever take advice from other people and the Bradford food-mountain has always known he's right.
Meanwhile, Lord Astor of Hever turns up as a trustee of the Bridge and an pal of the Werritty-funding SAS walt, Iraq contract hunter, and intimate of mercenaries Tim Spicer and Anthony Buckingham.
I think I've said before that Astor of Hever came out of the Lobster Project proof of concept script as being a surprisingly important gatekeeper - although in himself, he isn't a major node, people who meet him also tend to get one-to-one meetings with the most important ministers. His weighted network degree, a measurement of how many links in the lobbying network involve him adjusted for how many people took part in the meetings, is 0.125, pretty low (78th in the league), but his gatekeepership metric is 2.533, the third highest overall and the very highest score for a minister with UK-wide responsibility. (I discount the gatekeepership numbers for Scottish and Welsh ministers, as their role is partly to represent Scottish and Welsh interests and they are structurally heavily lobbied.)
The gatekeepership metric in Lobster is the ratio of the average weighted network degree of those who lobbied a given minister to the average of all lobbies, to the ratio of that minister's network degree to that of an average minister, thus capturing the degree to which meeting that minister was associated with meeting more or less important ones while taking into account the fact that some ministerial jobs are more important than others. If it is greater than 1, you're likely to get a boost, if less, you're being heard out.
A limitation is that obviously, the Prime Minister can't help you meet a more important minister, so it doesn't yet deal with the situation where you meet the PM to get your word across and are then referred to a junior minister for action. I accept that this is a problem, although you would expect that it is easier to lobby the small fry, so the metric is nevertheless useful. However, at a network degree of 0.125, Lord Astor is not affected by this phenomenon.
OK, so we have a prediction - other ministers involved with the Werritty/Fox/Atlantic Bridge case will demonstrate unusually high gatekeepership. Step forward Gerald Howarth MP, Minister for International Security Strategy, who achieves a gatekeepership of 2.36, the fourth highest overall and the second highest UK-wide, on a network degree of 1.2. That's some pull, when you note that he's a significant node in terms of quantity.
Lobster detected a sinister network of influence! How awesome is that?