David Cameron's Greensill Escapade Is a Sorry Tale

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Shortly before he became U.K. prime minister in 2010, David Cameron warned that lobbying was the “next big scandal waiting to happen” and he promised to reform the “far too cozy relationship between politics, government, business and money.” The Conservative Party he led had lost power previously after being mired in allegations of financial sleaze, and he was anxious to avoid the same taint.

Foresight can be embarrassing.

It has now been revealed that last year Cameron secretly lobbied the U.K. Treasury and texted the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s mobile phone to give Greensill Capital better access to Covid emergency loans. The finance company went into administration last month, leading to thousands of threatened job losses. The former prime minister reportedly stood to gain tens of millions of dollars from Greensill share options if the company had floated. Now they’re worthless.

Connections between Cameron and the bankrupt firm go back a few years. During his time as prime minister, the firm’s Australian founder Lex Greensill visited 11 government departments as he pitched his supply-chain financing services, according to an investigation by my old newspaper, the Sunday Times. Greensill’s role as a government adviser was unannounced before he was given a formal role as a “crown commissioner” in 2013. The whiff of sleaze is back — and stronger than ever.

The law hasn’t been broken here. But it’s hard not to conclude that Cameron’s behavior has demeaned his former office and his present reputation. It serves as a reminder that the rules of conduct for senior politicians must be tightened. Disclosure of all business interests should be imperative and the penalties far more scorching than they are in Britain.

For years when I was editor of the Sunday Times we campaigned for higher standards in public life and our reporters exposed the seamy side of politics. Every step toward reform was resisted by the political class, every loophole in the rules was exploited and we often ended up in court.

Cameron isn’t the only former leader to have poor form on cupidity. Tony Blair made millions from consulting work with leaders whose human rights record wouldn’t bear scrutiny. France’s ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy faces a possible jail sentence for corruption. Many old rules are being twisted out of shape, even if they’re not bring broken.

As Cameron’s defenders hotly point out, politicians have a right to a business career in their afterlife, but they and senior civil servants should only be allowed to use their contacts and relationships in ways that are transparent and beyond reproach. In the former prime minister’s case he can hardly plead poverty. In the year to April 30, 2019, his private company had net assets of 836,168 pounds ($1.15 million).

There are moral parameters to this, too, which go beyond the financial. Cameron, it was also disclosed this week, took a private jet to join Greensill in lobbying (unsuccessfully) the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for contracts — a truly ill-judged maneuver.

Sometimes fate gets things right. Cameron won’t get to enjoy the fruits of his money grubbing. Blair, however, made a vast pile out of contacts with former Soviet republics including wealthy Kazakhstan, which became autocratic fiefdoms. The former Labour prime minister convinced himself, but few others, that he was working with “reformers.” 

But Cameron, who boasted of “a new golden era” of friendship with China when he was prime minister, found no takers for his China investment fund once he was out of office. The U.K., with its historic ties to Hong Kong, has been thrust into the middle of the new cold war with China. Cameron’s hopes of making a fortune from Greensill similarly came unstuck: He got the company access to the Treasury but not the required support.

The bigger point here is that when he first became prime minister Cameron saw the problem, understood it — and failed to fix it. He introduced Britain’s first register of paid lobbyists, but when he became a private citizen he avoided disclosure of his own efforts for Greensill by becoming an employee of the firm. Similarly, he circumvented authorization from the independent Advisory Committee on Business Appointments for that employment.

And it was during Cameron’s time in No. 10 that Greensill appeared to secure access to all levels of his government. The Australian reportedly even had a business card, which stated he was a “senior adviser” in the prime minister’s office and included a Downing Street email address. Accidentally or not, when Cameron accepted an offer of a job from his financier chum he waited for two years, just outside the statutory limit required for official scrutiny. 

Rules that may just about work for junior government ministers too often miss the big fish. Relationships that start when you’re running the country or a big Whitehall department can be worth millions in later life. This is why this topic matters: It’s not just the case of one PM with a common fondness for money. Eric Pickles, a former minister in Cameron’s administration and now a government ethics adviser, says: “Prime ministers and ex-prime ministers are powerful people. It’s important that the system is resistant to powerful people.”

Much longer and tighter rules for exclusion from some forms of paid employment are needed. Former prime ministers must be made to reveal all their business dealings. They should enter them in a register of interests — similar to those required of members of Parliament and of the House of Lords. 

The Labour Party opposition knows sleaze is a weak point for the Tories. Its leader, Keir Starmer, is a tough lawyer. This case should play to his strengths and he should set out principles for change. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who behaves as if rules are for others, nevertheless has a nose for danger close to home. When he detects the public mood is shifting away from bemused tolerance, he will reluctantly move with it.

A cleanup must come. After all, it is what Cameron wanted — or at least he did, before he became prime minister.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Martin Ivens was editor of the Sunday Times from 2013 to 2020 and was formerly its chief political commentator. He is a director of the Times Newspapers board.

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