In a speech at the University of East London in February 2010 David Cameron, then leader of the opposition, promised to lift the lid on ‘secret corporate lobbying’. The ‘far too cosy relationship between politics, government, business and money’, he said, would end on his watch. The full text of his speech isn’t easy to find – the Conservative Party erased ten years’ worth of speeches and press releases from its website in 2013 – but the internet doesn’t forget. In early March, when Cameron was drawn into the story of Greensill Capital’s collapse, his words were quoted back at him.
The British press has called Greensill ‘the biggest lobbying scandal in a generation’. But in many ways it’s more serious than that. For the best part of a decade, the Australian financier Lex Greensill enjoyed privileged access to Westminster, at first personally and then by means of former cabinet ministers and senior civil servants who were paid to plead on his behalf. The diaphanous, ineffectual reforms to lobbying regulation that Cameron introduced in 2014 are part of the problem, but the rot affecting standards in British public life goes much deeper.
The Greensill scandal has its origins in the long-standing belief that only private enterprise can shake up fusty Whitehall. Jeremy Heywood, the cabinet secretary, was acting on this belief when he invited Greensill into Cameron’s administration in 2011. They had known each other since the mid-2000s, when they both worked in the City. (Heywood, who died in 2018, left the civil service after the Hutton Inquiry into David Kelly’s death, but returned when Gordon Brown became prime minister in 2007.) Cameron appointed Greensill, who had left Citigroup to start his own firm, as an adviser. He was given a desk in the Cabinet Office and a secure Number Ten email address. In 2014, he was made a UK crown representative and liaised with the private sector on behalf of the government. At the same time, he instructed civil servants in the virtues of supply-chain financing (his company’s specialism), which uses complex financial engineering to pay a company’s invoices upfront, for a fee. (One procurement expert described it as ‘balance sheet manipulation with a smiley face’.)
When Cameron left Downing Street in 2016, he walked through the revolving door he had once promised to close. He became chairman of the advisory board to Afiniti, a US data firm, and a consultant for the biotech company Illumina. He also registered with Washington Speakers Bureau (through which Theresa May has received more than £600,000 in speaking fees since the pandemic began). In August 2018, Cameron was hired by Greensill as a ‘part-time adviser’ and given share options worth as much as $70 million. Because it was more than two years since he had left ministerial office, Cameron didn’t have to notify the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (Acoba). It would in any case only have been a notification: the supposed watchdog doesn’t have the power to block appointments.
Cameron schmoozed for his money. He had tea with Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman in Saudi Arabia and reportedly brokered a meeting between Greensill and Barack Obama. But his main job seems to have been making representations to his former colleagues. In April 2020, as the pandemic took hold, Cameron pressed the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, to include the now ailing Greensill in the government’s Covid Corporate Financing Facility (CCFF). The scheme had been designed to give temporary taxpayer-funded loans to Britain’s biggest companies – Greensill clearly didn’t qualify – but Sunak texted his former party leader to say that he’d ‘pushed the team to explore an alternative with the Bank that might work’. Cameron called and emailed Boris Johnson’s senior special adviser, Sheridan Westlake, and called and texted Tom Scholar, the permanent secretary at the Treasury. He also contacted John Glen and Jesse Norman, two MPs who had served under him and were now ministers in Sunak’s department.
Despite Cameron’s efforts – and at least ten meetings with Treasury officials – Greensill wasn’t given access to the CCFF scheme, but it did benefit from government-backed funding in other ways: it reportedly applied for £400 million in Covid business loans. This still wasn’t enough to save it, and its collapse has revealed a complex web of questionable financial dealings around the world. Sanjeev Gupta’s business empire, which includes Britain’s third-largest steel manufacturer, Liberty Steel, was heavily reliant on Greensill for financing. Gupta has denied allegations that some of the loans made by Greensill to his company were advanced against potentially fraudulent invoices. Greensill Bank is subject to a criminal investigation in Germany. A US lawsuit accuses Credit Suisse of misleading investors with regard to Greensill and mismanaging its exposure to the firm.
Cameron wasn’t the only political insider who joined Greensill: the government’s chief commercial officer, Bill Crothers, who joined the civil service in 2007 after more than twenty years as a senior executive at the consultancy Accenture, became a Greensill adviser in late 2015. Remarkably, he stayed on in Whitehall for two months after he’d started his new gig. The Cabinet Office had ‘agreed’ to the dual role, which meant he didn’t have to declare his work for Greensill – even when he became a director of the company eleven months later. Another Cabinet Office adviser, David Brierwood (formerly at Morgan Stanley), was hired by Greensill while working for the civil service. The former Met Police chief Lord Bernard Hogan-Howe was a paid adviser for Greensill while he was acting as a non-executive director of the Cabinet Office. Francis Maude, another member of the House of Lords, has also been drawn into the scandal: he was Cabinet Office minister when the doors of Whitehall were opened to Lex Greensill. (Maude, who is currently undertaking a government review of his former department’s operations, owns a private consultancy that has registered work for the governments of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Kazakhstan.)
Greensill’s ties to power were fundamental to his business model. He hoped to win low-risk public contracts but knew that a government seal of approval would encourage private investors to buy into riskier schemes. And Greensill Capital was given taxpayers’ money: in 2018, it took over a supply-chain finance scheme for NHS pharmacies. The following year, Cameron brought Greensill to a ‘private drink’ with the health secretary, Matt Hancock. The meeting was not officially recorded, in contravention of the rules for ministers. Last April, Cameron lobbied the head of the NHS’s digital wing, Matthew Gould, to pay NHS staff advances on their wages through Earnd, another Greensill company. Cameron emailed Gould, who had served under him when he was prime minister, to say that Hancock was ‘extremely positive’ about the scheme, and suggested a post-pandemic catch-up, ‘maybe for lunch?’ Earnd went into administration last month, reportedly owing at least £400,000 to NHS-affiliated organisations.
The Conservatives at first tried to ignore the Greensill story. It was downplayed by anonymous party sources. But as the revelations came to dominate the news agenda – spearheaded by journalists at the Financial Times and the Sunday Times – Johnson ordered a formal inquiry into Cameron’s lobbying. It’s an unusually decisive move for a prime minister who has repeatedly declined to investigate allegations of misconduct against his own ministers: there have been whispers that Johnson is relishing the chance to make life difficult for his rival old Etonian. The official inquiry will be conducted by Nigel Boardman, a corporate lawyer and non-executive board member at the Department for Business who also sits on the board of a private bank chaired and majority-owned by a major Conservative donor. Boardman’s remit is narrow; he can’t compel anyone to give evidence and his recommendations won’t be binding. The review is unlikely to herald a new commitment to probity in public life.
Cameron has said little about all this. In his only public comments so far, made a month after the story first broke, he said the size of his financial interest in Greensill had been ‘massively exaggerated’, but refused to disclose how much he had stood to make from his now worthless share options. He admitted making mistakes, but insisted that he hadn’t broken any rules. He’s probably correct. The 2014 Lobbying Act is so full of loopholes that it covers only a fraction of Britain’s £2 billion lobbying industry. Only the lobbying of ministers and permanent secretaries has to be recorded. Only third-party lobbyists have to register. Those, like Cameron, who are directly employed by a company to lobby on its behalf, are exempt. Lobbying that is part of a larger contract, say for management consultancy, is not included. Neither are the corporate-funded think tanks that are often given extensive ministerial access. A comprehensive lobbying register would be good for everyone – including professional lobbyists. As it stands, the Act leaves most lobbyists untouched.
Iain Anderson, who runs the communications agency Cicero, said recently that reforms to the system could prompt a ‘huge reset in public attitudes to lobbying because people would be able to see it’. A veteran lobbyist I know was more blunt: ‘What pisses me off is Greensill demeans the whole profession. We want rules and regulations. It’s only the chancers who don’t.’ The Office of the Registrar of Consultant Lobbyists ruled after five days’ deliberation that Cameron did not have to register as a lobbyist since he was a Greensill employee, even though he was only working for them 25 days a year. (The registrar has refused to say whether it had seen Cameron’s contract before passing judgment.) Other supposed protections are equally flimsy. Acoba has four people monitoring hundreds of former ministers and Whitehall staff. The onus is on politicians to police themselves. Last year, when the former chancellor (and current MP) Sajid Javid took a second job paying £150,000 a year with JP Morgan, the watchdog said that he should not use his contacts to influence policy, or offer advice on certain areas connected to his time in government. But who’s checking? Responsibility rests with Acoba’s chairman, Eric Pickles, who previously served as Cameron’s local government minister and anti-corruption tsar. Pickles has been more willing to criticise civil servants than politicians. He remains president of the Enterprise Forum, a lobbying organisation that connects ‘the business community and the Conservative Party’. He didn’t mention his role with the Enterprise Forum in the written submission he made to a parliamentary committee before taking the Acoba job.
There are some grounds for hope. Commons select committees have launched inquiries into various aspects of Greensill. Though parliamentary grillings often encourage grandstanding, they have in the past forced reluctant public figures to face difficult questions: Philip Green’s reputation has never recovered from his bad-tempered, six-hour defence of the role he played in the collapse of BHS in 2016. Action is also being taken in Whitehall. In mid-April, Simon Case, the cabinet secretary, gave senior civil servants 72 hours to declare jobs held outside government. The results are unlikely to stay private for long.
The role of private businesses in delivering public services has vastly increased over the last four decades. Outsourcing now comprises a third of centralised government spending. With it has come greater demands from lobbyists: all those PFI projects didn’t sell themselves. At the same time, the private sector has become ever more entwined with government. This trend might go some way towards explaining one of the more curious aspects of the Greensill affair – the reason Lex’s Whitehall cheerleaders were so enthusiastic about him in the first place. Supply-chain financing has more than a hint of pre-2008 financial alchemy about it. Unlike borrowing, so-called ‘reverse factoring’ does not appear on the balance sheet as debt. Commercial suppliers are often willing to pay a premium to ensure invoices are settled speedily, but why would the government line a middleman’s pockets rather than improve its internal systems to ensure bills are paid on time?
The biggest difference between previous scandals – cash for questions, cash for access, cash for honours – and this one seems to be the attitude of Britain’s political leaders. While John Major was forced to establish the Committee on Standards in Public Life, undergirded by the seven Nolan Principles, which include integrity, honesty and accountability, Johnson has spent his career treating norms with disdain, whether taking his mistress Jennifer Arcuri on taxpayer-funded trips or failing to fully declare his interests outside Parliament. Ministers have apparently given up resigning. Liam Fox was forced to step down as defence secretary ten years ago after bringing his friend, the Atlantic Bridge lobbyist Adam Werritty, to official meetings; the current housing secretary, Robert Jenrick, remains in his job despite admitting ‘apparent bias’ in overturning a lucrative planning decision in favour of a Conservative donor he’d sat next to at a party fundraiser.
Johnson has followed Cameron in promising to clean up Westminster but his government is awash in conflicts of interest. At the start of the pandemic, Lord Feldman, a lobbyist and former Conservative Party chair, was brought in to work as an unpaid adviser to the health minister Lord Bethell. One of Feldman’s corporate clients was awarded a £22.6 million Covid contract. PPE contracts worth £1.6 billion were awarded to firms with political connections to the Conservatives, according to a report by Transparency International. It was recently revealed that Hancock has shares in a firm run by his sister and her husband that was given NHS contracts during the pandemic.
At the same time, there has been a failure to maintain even the most basic level of transparency. Freedom of information – which could be more effective than any lobbying register – has been gutted. The ‘twice yearly’ register of ministers’ interests has not been published since last July. The adviser responsible for the register, Alex Allan, has not been replaced since his resignation last year in protest at Johnson’s refusal to sack Priti Patel as home secretary after she was found guilty of bullying staff. Johnson himself has been accused of a breach of the ministerial code for failing to disclose payments from a donor that were used to refurbish his private apartments in Downing Street. But even if there were an independent adviser on ministerial standards, an inquiry is unlikely: only the prime minister can sanction one.
Labour hopes that sleaze is Johnson’s weakness. Internal party polling suggests the scandals are registering with voters, particularly in the ‘Red Wall’ seats. The shadow cabinet office minister, Rachel Reeves, has called for an ethics and integrity commission to guarantee standards in public life (but Cameron made grand promises in opposition too). Greensill has prompted a panic about lobbying, but the real and enduring scandal is the power of money in British politics. Cameron, like Tony Blair and many others, saw nothing wrong in selling his access to the highest bidder. Britain’s political culture appears intensely relaxed about perceptions of cronyism and nepotism. Corporate donations grease the wheels for lucrative public contracts. Honours are dished out to party funders. Last December, Johnson defied the recommendation of the Lords Appointment Commission when he elevated the Tory donor Peter Cruddas to the Lords. The month before, Lord Evans, the chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, had given a lecture entitled ‘Are we in a post-Nolan age?’ It was a rhetorical question.
You can listen to Peter Geoghegan discuss this piece on the LRB Podcast.