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The Observer view on the lobbying scandal engulfing the government

Observer editorial
·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Matt Dunham/AP</span>
Photograph: Matt Dunham/AP

When David Cameron predicted in 2010 that lobbying was “the next big scandal waiting to happen”, he could not have envisaged that a decade later he would be at the heart of it. But that is exactly where he is: a former prime minister who has traded his time in public office to accept a lucrative role at now-collapsed financial services firm Greensill Capital, lobbying former colleagues for access to government schemes that would have helped protect his financial interests in the company.

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Cameron’s role has propelled Greensill’s lobbying activities into the headlines, but it does not stop there. There are questions over the impact Cameron’s lobbying of the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, and the health secretary, Matt Hancock, may have had on government policy. Cameron reportedly messaged Sunak many times on his personal phone; while Greensill did not get access to the emergency loans Cameron was asking for, it is not clear whether in “pushing” his team to explore an alternative, Sunak effectively gave Cameron and Greensill privileged access to Treasury officials. Cameron arranged a private drink for himself and Lex Greensill with Hancock in 2019 to discuss a payment scheme for the NHS, which went on to be used by several trusts. It has also emerged that two senior civil servants held paid roles for Greensill, giving the appearance of an extraordinary conflict of interest: Bill Crothers, the former head of procurement for the government, became an adviser to Greensill before he left the civil service, and David Brierwood became a director of Greensill while a crown representative.

This episode highlights the extensive opacity around lobbying and corporate influence. A lack of transparency and regulation makes it far too easy for people with the right contacts to get privileged access to policymaking in a way that swings outcomes in their favour. Vague and incomplete rules on lobbying allow ministers to evade proper scrutiny. There is almost no meaningful policing of the revolving door that sees special advisers, former ministers – and prime ministers – take lucrative jobs that allow them to profit from personal contacts with former colleagues. All of this has been compounded in the past decade by a naively starry-eyed approach to bringing private-sector experience into government policymaking and delivery, as if the PFI and outsourcing disasters of recent years had never happened.

Boris Johnson has sought to distance himself from this by painting it as a scandal of the Cameron era. But not only do questions hang over his ministers, he himself is no role model for integrity in public office. He failed to declare personal interests while he was mayor of London, including the fact that a woman he appointed as an unpaid adviser was the mother of one of his children, and his relationship with Jennifer Arcuri, who benefited from thousands of pounds of public money over a four-year period. His government has faced questions about how it awarded contracts to personal contacts of ministers during the pandemic: the National Audit Office has found that PPE suppliers with political connections were directed to a “high priority” procurement channel, where bids were 10 times more likely to be successful. Hancock failed to declare that the 15% of shares he owns in a company that is a supplier to the NHS in Wales has his sister as a director. Johnson ignored the finding of his independent adviser on ministerial standards that Priti Patel had broken the code by bullying civil servants, prompting the adviser to resign.

Governments of all political colours have got themselves in trouble over lobbying scandals. What has changed is that a demonstrable lack of integrity once swiftly claimed ministerial scalps: witness the two resignations of Peter Mandelson or the suspensions of Patricia Hewitt, Geoff Hoon and Stephen Byers from the Labour party in the cash-for-access scandal. Johnson seems to think that so long as he brazens it out, he can avoid forcing the resignation of ministers who have broken the ministerial code. The government still has not published the register of ministers’ interests that was due at the end of last year, while the post of independent adviser on the ministerial code has remained vacant for five months after Sir Alex Allan’s resignation.

All this gives the impression of a government in which ministers feel entitled to use public office for personal gain. In a system that depends overwhelmingly on self-regulation according to the Nolan principles of public life, with a political majority that means they are unlikely to face any immediate political accountability, they can get away with it. Johnson himself has irrevocably eroded the unwritten honour code of politics; he is a prime minister who has proved willing to unlawfully suspend parliament in order to try to get his way or to dupe voters with what the UK Statistics Authority has ruled a “clear misuse of official statistics”.

Other parliamentary democracies such as Canada and Ireland take a much tougher approach to lobbying. We do not need a long inquiry to tell us that we need a much more robust system in the UK, with a comprehensive register of all political lobbying, an agency to regulate the revolving door with the power to impose sanctions, for example by docking the pensions of former ministers and civil servants, and an independent regulator of the ministerial code. But most fundamentally, we deserve political leaders who take their ethical obligations as holders of public office seriously, rather than approaching politics as an ego trip, a game and, ultimately, a route to personal financial gain.