It is in danger of becoming received wisdom that the Greensill affair is an example of “Tory sleaze” similar to that which polluted the party’s reputation in the late 1990s. They do not compare. I had a ringside seat for the seedy death throes of John Major’s government. The scandals of those years mainly involved hitherto obscure politicians being caught with their peckers out or their snouts in the trough. The tabloids discovered various Conservative MPs in bed with people who were not their wives, often a career-busting transgression then, but now so accepted that Boris Johnson can be prime minister. There were also some notorious cases of Tory backbenchers taking undeclared payments – “cash for questions” – to promote business interests in parliament. This swelled the public’s feeling that the Conservatives had been corrupted by a long stretch in power and contributed to their landslide defeat at the 1997 election, but none of it threw into question the integrity of government itself.
The Greensill affair is several orders of magnitude more serious. A former prime minister is at the heart of this scandal that points to something rotten about how we are governed and is now embroiling not just politicians, but also the civil service.
Cameron has demonstrated his protections against abuse are as much use as a chocolate fireguard
Guardrails to prevent abuse in the murky world of influence-peddling were supposedly put in place during David Cameron’s time as prime minister. So it is one of politics’ piquant ironies that he has played such a large role in demonstrating that those protections are as much use as a chocolate fireguard.
He has belatedly issued a “lessons to be learned” statement about his frantic efforts to bend government policy to suit the commercial needs of his paymasters at Greensill Capital, the collapsed Australian financial services company. At best a half-apology, he included this pompous account of why he was hired.
“My responsibilities included providing geopolitical advice to the leadership, helping to win new business, speaking for the company at conferences and events and helping with plans for international expansion.”
Who is he trying to kid – himself or us? I am sure the Greensill board politely nodded along when Mr Cameron offered them the benefit of his “geopolitical” prognostications. I expect they dutifully clapped when he strung together some cliches for company events. But his ability to make a speech was not the reason he was put on the books by Lex Greensill, who had a desk in Number 10 when Mr Cameron lived there and a Downing Street business card with bragging rights that he was an adviser to the prime minister. Everyone on both sides of the equation knows the deal. Those who employ former politicians do so to get access to their networks and use of their inside knowledge of how to navigate the system. They are hired to be a golden swipecard that will open doors in Whitehall and also abroad. Someone once described this very well. “We all know how it works. The lunches, the hospitality, the quiet word in your ear, the ex-ministers and ex-advisers for hire, helping big business find the right way to get its way.” That someone was Mr Cameron, speaking shortly before he became prime minister, when he predicted that “the far-too-cosy relationship between politics and money” was “the next big scandal waiting to happen”, though he failed to foresee that he would be at the core of it. Former ministers – and especially former prime ministers – are hired because they can bend the ear of government decision-makers.
In that respect, Mr Cameron tried to earn his corn for Greensill. When its risky business model ran into trouble, he sent fusillades of text messages and emails to Rishi Sunak and other Treasury ministers to persuade them to tweak the rules to allow the company to draw on emergency support for businesses hit by Covid.
Cameron insists it is an exaggeration to say he stood to gain $60m from share options in Greensill
Mr Cameron is not hard up. He owns three homes that we know of. He can pull more than £100,000 for a speech. He has several well-remunerated roles with other firms. Yet that was apparently not enough to satisfy his gargantuan sense of entitlement. While he insists it is an exaggeration to say he stood to gain $60m from share options in Greensill, he won’t divulge the anticipated payday. Says one senior Tory: “Dave’s eyes were out on stalks at the gold on offer.”
This would be a big story if it were only about an avaricious former prime minister wrecking what remained of his Brexit-shattered reputation. What makes it even larger is the illumination being cast on the dark undergrowth of entanglements between commercial interests and government. Conversations with MPs, officials and others suggest to me that Greensill is just the tip of a fatberg. Many MPs and advisers – Mr Cameron being one of them – were corporate lobbyists before they got a perch at Westminster. Many ex-MPs and former advisers work in paid advocacy. This is a very hectic revolving door.
In response to previous scandals, codes were drawn up that supposedly commit ministers and officials not just to avoid conflicts of interests, but also any appearance of them. Yet it has now emerged that Bill Crothers, who managed billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money as the government’s chief procurement officer, remained a senior civil servant while also having an advisory role at Greensill before later becoming one of the company’s directors. “I wasn’t surprised about David Cameron, because that is the way he ran government. You’re a mate. I’ve got your phone number. Do me a favour. That’s how he does business,” says one former Tory cabinet minister. “I was shocked that you can be a civil servant and simultaneously have a part-time job with a company. That’s genuinely jaw-dropping.”
There has long been a pattern of senior mandarins securing a nice earner on retirement by sliding into seats on company boards. The Crothers case, a still active civil servant also having a commercial gig, is at a different level. Mr Crothers’s troubling defence is that double-jobbing is “not uncommon” and he had been given the nod by the Cabinet Office. That, he argues, released him from any obligation to seek permission from the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments. Eric Pickles, the former Tory cabinet minister who chairs that toothless watchdog, says his “eyebrows raised the full quarter-inch” when he found out. Most people will have struggled to stop their eyebrows from hitting the ceiling upon learning that a civil servant can moonlight in the private sector. How “not uncommon” is this straddling of the boundary between the public interest and commercial ones? When I asked someone who once held a very senior position at the Cabinet Office how many civil servants had a private sector job on the side, he replied: “I simply don’t know. I never thought to ask, because it was so unthinkable.”
There are now more than half a dozen inquiries of various kinds. The government will probably be forced to rewrite some of the rules. The most obvious gaps may be tightened up, such as the loophole that did not require disclosure of Mr Cameron’s activities. That was brought to light by enterprising journalism. More rigorous safeguards will be promised. Ex-ministers may be subject to a longer quarantine period before they can lobby government.
Yet I struggle to believe that there will be a thorough clean-up so long as Boris Johnson is prime minister. Much as he may be relishing the humiliation of “Dave”, a rival since they were at Eton together, anything concerning conflicts of interests asks questions about the current tenant of Number 10. He sees nothing wrong with Jennifer Arcuri securing financial sponsorship for her business from City Hall when he was mayor of London and they were lovers. We still don’t know the identity of the mystery benefactors who paid for the expensive makeover of the Downing Street flat. Robert Jenrick remains seated in the cabinet despite expediting an “unlawful” planning decision that saved Richard Desmond, the property developer and Tory donor, £45m in taxes. The government continues to resist a comprehensive accounting of which friends and contacts of Tory ministers, MPs, peers and advisers were given first-class berths aboard the Covid-contracts gravy train, the crony express. Five months have passed since the resignation of Sir Alex Allan as the invigilator of the ministerial code in protest at Mr Johnson’s refusal to accept his findings about bullying by Priti Patel. The position of ethics prefect remains vacant, which tells you all you need to know about how much priority the prime minister gives to policing the integrity of his government.
This Augean stable needs mucking out, but it is unlikely that Mr Johnson will be a vigorous shovel.
• Andrew Rawnsley is Chief Political Commentator of the Observer