If only David Cameron had been able to follow the rules then a lot of the trouble around Greensill Capital could have been averted. And the rules are that you go straight to the top and message Boris Johnson directly – almost everyone except me seems to have his mobile number – and he will fix things right away. After all, it worked well enough for James Dyson. Only, the problem for Dave was that he and Boris Johnson have history. Put simply, Boris loathes Cameron: he still can’t forgive him for getting a better degree and becoming prime minister before him.
So the usual lobbying channels weren’t open to Dave, which meant he had to move lower down the food chain and text Rishi Sunak and the junior Treasury minister John Glen instead. After which things started to badly unravel, culminating in no fewer than six different inquiries into Tory sleaze and cronyism. One of which is being conducted by the public accounts committee and on Thursday morning was taking evidence from the two top civil servants at the Treasury – the permanent secretary, Tom Scholar, and his deputy, the second permanent secretary, Charles Roxburgh – who had been delegated to deal with the donkey work of Cameron’s lobbying activities.
Scholar was quick to distance himself from any wrongdoing. Though Dave had sent him a number of text messages – on his official mobile, not his burner phone – he had only had one virtual meeting with Greensill. After that, he had left everything in the more than capable hands of his number two. At which point Labour’s Meg Hillier, the committee chair, turned her attentions to Roxburgh. How many meetings had he had with Greensill?
“Nine,” said Roxburgh eventually after his video link froze several times in quick succession. And they could loosely be grouped into three separate sections of three calls each. The first was Greensill applying for supply chain funds on the terms the government had specified. By the end of the third call, the Treasury had concluded Greensill didn’t meet the necessary qualifications and delivered a polite no.
Next up, Greensill had returned with a counterproposal. It quite understood why the Treasury had rejected them the first time, because any sensible government department would turn down a company that was going to be insolvent within a year. But how about the Treasury rethought some of the qualifying regulations so that Greensill could at least get its hands on some dosh? After three further calls, Roxburgh had decided that on balance it was probably still not a good idea to include Greensill in the Covid supply chain schemes.
Undeterred, Greensill came back a third time. OK, it said. It understood that the Treasury couldn’t justify its inclusion either on its own terms or the new terms Greensill had suggested. So it had a new plan to tweak the regulations in another, slightly different way, which it hoped Roxburgh would find more satisfactory. Three calls later, the second permanent secretary regretfully concluded that Greensill had yet to make a convincing case it was a suitable company with whom the Treasury could conduct business. This time Greensill did take no for an answer and stopped hassling Roxburgh.
These answers only prompted further questions. The Tory Geoffrey Clifton-Brown and Labour’s Nick Smith wondered whether it was standard practice for the Treasury to be quite so accommodating of companies that clearly didn’t meet the department’s lending criteria.
Surely the Treasury wasn’t quite so indulgent of every company that demanded the rules be changed for their own criteria. Roxburgh looked taken aback. It was the government’s job to consider every proposal thoroughly. Which it had done, and since – given Greensill’s subsequent collapse – the right decision not to proceed had been made, then no harm had been caused. In fact, the diligence the Treasury had taken was a vindication that its vetting systems were fit for purpose.
Hillier cut to the chase. Would Greensill have been given such special treatment if the company had not been recommended to Sunak, Glen and Scholar by Cameron? Here Scholar rather gave the game away. Of course he would always take calls from ministers he had worked with. And it was only reasonable to give preferential treatment to companies with lobbyists who were known to him rather than those that were effectively cold-callers. And it wasn’t his fault if some of the companies fell short of expectations. We lived in an imperfect world.
The civil servants fell silent and the proceedings ended. Scholar and Roxburgh had only been doing their jobs. Just as Dodgy Dave had only been doing his. One person’s cronyism was another person’s business sense.