Cameron-Greensill lobbying scandal: the facts, explained

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David Cameron and Lex Greensill - Wall Street Journal
David Cameron and Lex Greensill - Wall Street Journal

What’s the story?

Ministers, Whitehall mandarins and a former prime minister have become embroiled in a major lobbying scandal after it emerged that David Cameron had been quietly pushing for a beleaguered finance company to receive Covid bailouts from the Treasury.

After leaving office in 2016, Mr Cameron took on a job with Greensill Capital, a “supply chain finance” company that offers short term credit to firms to help them pay invoices more quickly.

The company is run by Lex Greensill, who worked in Government during Mr Cameron’s time in office and was awarded a CBE for his work on a similar finance scheme for government departments.

It has emerged that Mr Cameron privately lobbied ministers, senior Government officials and the Bank of England to attempt to secure a coronavirus support payment for Greensill last year.

The former prime minister told an official it was “nuts” that supply chain finance firms were excluded from the Government’s support schemes and asked Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, to look again at whether Greensill could be given a bailout from the Treasury.

Mr Cameron’s attempts were resisted – and investors withdrew their money from the company earlier this year after raising concerns about its viability.

The firm has since filed for insolvency protection and threatens to bring Liberty Steel, a major UK manufacturer, with it.

But the saga has raised questions about how lobbying in Westminster works, and whether former public servants like Mr Cameron should be allowed to use their contacts for private enterprise – and profit.

The consultant lobbying regulator, which monitors freelance lobbyists in the UK, concluded that since Mr Cameron was an employee of Greensill, it was not equipped to regulate his activities.

Boris Johnson now faces calls to increase the scope of lobbying rules to create greater transparency, while critics of Mr Cameron point out that it was under his government that an attempt to establish more rigorous rules was voted down by Tory peers.

Mr Johnson has now set up an independent inquiry chaired by Nigel Boardman, a senior corporate lawyer, to investigate Mr Cameron’s lobbying and Mr Greensill’s involvement in Government under the Cameron government.

Labour says the inquiry is likely to be a “Conservative cover-up” and is calling for another inquiry into cronyism led by MPs.

Looking back

The messages from Mr Cameron to decision-makers in Whitehall make for extraordinary reading.

They have all been uncovered by reporters – largely from the Financial Times and Sunday Times – because there is no requirement for communications of that nature to be released by Government departments.

Mr Cameron contacted Mr Sunak and two of his junior Treasury ministers (John Glen and Jesse Norman) about Greensill’s eligibility for Covid payments, and arranged a “private drink” with Matt Hancock to discuss a payment scheme that was eventually rolled out in the NHS.

Mr Cameron says he believed Greensill’s supply chain model could have been integrated into the Government’s bailout scheme – known officially as the Covid Corporate Financing Facility – and points out that a similar idea was used following the financial crash in 2008.

“What we need is for Rishi (Sunak) to have a good look at this and ask officials to find a way of making it work,” Mr Cameron wrote last year.

Mr Cameron has released a statement that says while he can “understand the concern” about lobbying from former PMs, he thought it was “right” that he represented the company to the Treasury because it was involved in financing a large number of UK firms.

He denies that he was given share options in the company worth $60 million, and says the true figure was far lower. Given the company’s insolvency, they are now worthless anyway.

Anything else?

One of the few organisations that monitors lobbying and the business activities of former ministers is the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA) and is run by Eric Pickles, a former Tory MP.

Yesterday Mr Pickles revealed that a senior civil servant was granted permission to join Greensill Capital while still working at the highest levels of government in 2015 – when Mr Cameron was still prime minister.

Bill Crothers was head of Whitehall procurement, in control of a £15 billion annual purchasing budget, when he took on an external role as part-time adviser to the finance company's board.

Labour said the news was “extraordinary and shocking” and is pushing for a wide-ranging inquiry led by MPs.

The party will use an opposition day motion today that will establish the parliamentary inquiry if Tory MPs do not vote it down.

A Labour source this week noted that in The Thick of It, a political sitcom generally held to be an exaggerated representation of Westminster, there is a judge-led inquiry into one leaked email – let alone a major lobbying scandal involving a former PM.

The Government has already announced there will be an independent inquiry – and has expanded its scope to include Mr Crothers’ second job – but the story now threatens to become a broader outcry about lobbying in Westminster.

It is thought that many civil servants have second jobs as advisors on company boards, and ministers often hold meetings with lobbyists without declaring them to the Cabinet Office.

And while Labour has been highly critical of the Government’s “cronyism” during the Covid crisis, many Labour MPs are themselves former lobbyists.

The Refresher take

The unedifying text messages sent by David Cameron to government officials are only the beginning of a political scandal that will almost certainly claim more scalps.

Whether or not Labour succeed in establishing a parliamentary inquiry into lobbying, there is now much greater scrutiny on the well-oiled revolving door between big business and the Government.

While much of the murky behaviour is actually within the existing lobbying rules, ministers now rightly face growing calls to expand the regulations to tackle the various “private drinks” between old friends that seemingly inform official decision-making.

This was first published in The Telegraph's Refresher newsletter. For more facts and explanation behind the week’s biggest political stories, sign up to the Refresher here – straight to your inbox every Wednesday afternoon for free.

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