Cameron’s lobbying row
Oscar Young looks at the latest Westminster scandal and whether it indicates time for change in the government.
Former Prime Minister David Cameron has come under fire after his lobbying efforts on behalf of the now-collapsed financial services company, Greensill Capital, came to light.
Cameron took up a senior advisory position at the firm in 2018, two years after resigning as Prime Minister. It is reported that he has a $60m stake in the company – an amount that he says is exaggerated.
Details have surfaced of him promoting Greensill to his close contacts in the current government, in particular over a ‘private drink’ with Health Secretary Matt Hancock and the company’s founder Lex Greensill. At this meeting, they discussed a payment scheme, operated by Greensill, that was later offered by the NHS.
It was also revealed that Cameron exchanged text messages with Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak in April 2020, enquiring on behalf of Greensill about access to government-backed loans during the pandemic. Although Cameron never succeeded in this, Greensill did provide loans to struggling businesses as part of a separate government scheme.
Historically, Cameron has been an outspoken critic of political lobbying. During a speech in 2010, he predicted it was “the next big scandal waiting to happen.” His government even introduced new lobbying legislation in 2014, establishing a register for consultant lobbyists. The irony is that his actions are now the centre of the practice he previously tried to regulate. Since Greensill filed for insolvency in March of this year, Cameron has faced criticism over his actions, highlighted by calls for reform, especially from opposition parties.
The irony is that his actions are now the centre of the practice he previously tried to regulate
So, just how common is lobbying in the current political arena?
Undoubtedly, former politicians, especially those with the recognition and contacts of Cameron, are much sought after as lobbyists. Political pundits often refer to the ‘revolving door’ of politicians moving between government and lobbying firms. Cameron is not the first, nor will he be the last.
Bill Crothers, a top civil servant while Cameron was at 10 Downing Street, also worked at Greensill in 2015 in an advisory capacity while still on the government payroll. He left the civil service the following year and went to work at Greensill full-time.
Tony Blair, former Labour Prime Minister, also faced scrutiny after he took on a highly paid consultancy role to an oil company just 14 months after he left office. The company, UI Energy, had interests in Iraq, the very location where Blair had joined the USA in invading just five years earlier.
Lobbying issues have been far more prominent in the United States, with high profile groups like the NRA publicly supporting candidates financially. However, in the UK, much of this appears to be hidden from public view – and this current example seems to only scratch the surface. The register introduced in 2014 only requires third-party lobbyists in Westminster to disclose their actions. Cameron was directly employed by Greensill and so never had to divulge his activities.
Maybe it’s about time movement is made towards a more open government, in the image of Cameron’s own promises made all those years ago
The other main watchdog that supervises Westminster lobbying, the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA), only oversees the two years after a politician leaves government. Therefore, Cameron was able to take his position in 2018 without the need for consulting ACOBA.
The flaws in this system have prompted calls for stricter legislation. Labour leader, Keir Starmer, has argued that there has been “increasing evidence of cronyism” throughout the pandemic. Cameron himself maintains his innocence, however, has recently acknowledged that he should have followed “only the most formal channels.”
Transparency campaigners have also joined the efforts. Steve Goodrich of Transparency International stated that ‘fundamental’ reform is needed, with the UK lacking a ‘comprehensive register’ of these activities.
In response, current Prime Minister Boris Johnson has asked lawyer Nigel Boardman to lead an independent review into the events. Some critics feel this is more of a public relations exercise than anything meaningful. The most prominent question, however, is where do we go from here? Maybe it’s about time movement is made towards a more open government, in the image of Cameron’s own promises made all those years ago.