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Yes, lobbying dates back centuries. But the Greensill affair is still shocking

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Larry Elliott
·4-min read
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<span>Photograph: Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Getty Images

There is nothing new about lobbying. The term is supposed to date back to the 19th century, when the US president Ulysses Grant was waylaid in the lobby of the Willard hotel, just down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, by people petitioning him for jobs.

Nor is there anything illegal, or even wrong, about it. MPs are constantly bombarded by lobbyists urging them to support everything from changes to building regulations to the size of the aid budget.

It is also naive to imagine a world where former politicians are not tempted to try pulling the odd string or two for corporate interests. David Cameron was useful to Lex Greensill precisely because, as the former prime minister, he could expect current members of the government to respond to his calls.

Related: What is the Greensill lobbying scandal and who is involved?

All that said, the government can count itself fortunate that the NHS’s vaccine programme is going so well, because the more that comes out about the Greensill affair, the murkier it all gets. All the ingredients are there: conflicts of interest; alleged breaches of the ministerial code; the potential for personal enrichment in the event that the lobbying paid off; the involvement of senior ministers, including the chancellor, Rishi Sunak.

Boris Johnson has said he shares the “widespread concerns about some of the stuff we are reading about”, and that is welcome, because what we are reading about is a former prime minister lobbying the current chancellor of the exchequer on behalf of a company failing because the weakness of its business model had been exposed. A bumper payday for himself was a not inconsiderable spin-off benefit if Cameron were to have succeeded.

Given the government’s majority, there was never any chance of the Commons backing Labour’s call for a parliamentary inquiry. But if the independent review headed by Nigel Boardman is to have any real credibility, it must address the following questions.

Is the current system of lobbying unsavoury and helping to create a culture of cronyism? Should former politicians be forced to wait longer before lobbying on behalf of commercial interests, or even be forbidden from ever doing so? Is it right that a current civil servant can also be working part-time as an adviser for a company? Does the ministerial code need to be tightened so that Sunak and the health secretary, Matt Hancock, have to come clean about all approaches made to them, and their response to them?

Or is this a case of “Move along, nothing to see here”?

EasyJet senses hope in the air

Johan Lundgren, the chief executive of easyJet, is in remarkably good spirits considering the dreadful winter the budget airline has just suffered. Passenger numbers were almost 90% down on the previous year and most planes remained on the tarmac.

But hope springs eternal, and Lundgren thinks a bumper summer could be in store as Europe comes out of hibernation and restrictions on travel are lifted. Investors seem to share his confidence: a rising share price reflected the expectations of better times to come.

Three things will need to happen to make this rosy scenario come to pass. First, the prime holiday destinations need to be opened up to foreign tourists, which in turn involves the EU bringing down infection rates and accelerating its vaccine programme. This is by no means guaranteed.

Second, the UK government has to put the majority of the most popular countries on its green list, so that returning holidaymakers can avoid the need to quarantine. Given the increasingly cautious tone of ministerial pronouncements, from the prime minister downwards, that’s by no means a certainty either. The government can’t afford a fourth lockdown and the pandemic news from around the globe is not especially encouraging.

Third, the government will need to respond to pressure from easyJet and other carriers to reduce the cost of PCR tests for departing and returning passengers. These cost between £150 and £250, making them in many cases more expensive than the flights, and Lundgren is probably right to assume that there will be plenty of households that will bridle at paying the thick end of £1,000 for a family of four to be tested and deemed Covid-free.