“We all know how it works. The lunches, the hospitality, the quiet word in your ear, the ex-ministers and ex-advisers for hire, helping big business find the right way to get its way.” That was David Cameron in 2010, three months before that year’s general election, in a pledge to “clean up” British politics.
But, as reported by the Times this morning (25 March), a formal investigation is now taking place into allegations that Cameron lobbied the Treasury and the Bank of England on behalf of Greensill Capital, the finance company that collapsed this month, leaving the British taxpayer exposed to over £1bn in debt guarantees.
This is not the full inquiry by the Treasury Select Committee that Labour MPs had hoped for (and which the Conservative-led committee declined), but a more specific investigation by the office that oversees professional lobbying. The Office of the Registrar of Consultant Lobbyists (ORCL) confirmed in a statement to the New Statesman this morning that it is “investigating whether Mr David Cameron has engaged in unregistered consultant lobbying”.
[Hear more on the New Statesman podcast]
Lobbying is perfectly legal; anyone can write to a government minister on their own behalf, or that of their employer. But under the Transparency of Lobbying Act 2014, anyone who lobbies government ministers professionally – on behalf of a client – must register with the ORCL. If they don’t, the ORCL can impose a fine of up to £7,500 or refer the case to the Director of Public Prosecutions, who can decide to initiate a criminal prosecution.
Could Cameron – who is not registered with the ORCL – face such a penalty, under a law passed by his own ministry?
Kieran Laird, a partner at law firm Gowling WLG and an expert on public law and regulation, says the scope of the act is very specific. ““It’s all about the particular sort of communications that you have with a very particular group of people.”
Cameron “would need to have been communicating with either a very high-level civil servant, or a minister, and he would need to have been doing it on behalf of someone else, for money”, says Laird. But the key point is whether Cameron was acting as an employee of Greensill, or on Greensill’s behalf.
“If you lobby on behalf of your own company,” Laird explains, “that’s not caught [by the legislation]. Because it’s basically there to catch people who do lobbying as a business.”
Both the ORCL and Grant Thornton, Greensill’s administrator, declined to comment on whether Cameron was lobbying as a third party. The former PM does have a registered business that provides “unclassified business support services”, but there’s a specific code for companies that conduct lobbying as their business and this classification is not used by The Office of David Cameron.
When the Transparency of Lobbying Act was being debated in 2014, one of the main objections was that – as with lobbying regulation in the US and elsewhere – it left a number of large loopholes for lobbyists to slip through. Laird agrees that “you’re able to get away with an awful lot, and most people would think to themselves – hey, is that not lobbying? But it’s actually not caught by the requirement to register.
“There’s lots of voluntary lobbying codes of practice in the UK, and they’re there to try and fill the gap that’s left by the legislation. Because the legislation does actually leave an awful lot out. You can do a fair bit without needing to be registered,” he adds.
If David Cameron is reprimanded by this investigation then it will be embarrassing, not only because he could receive a slap on the wrist, but because he will have failed to navigate a system designed by his own administration.