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30 March 2021updated 23 Jul 2021 1:31pm

David Cameron’s Greensill scandal puts Westminster lobbying under the spotlight

There is no suggestion that the former prime minister broke any rules by texting Rishi Sunak  – but maybe that’s the problem.

By Ailbhe Rea

What’s everyone in Westminster talking about today? For the MPs and staff who haven’t clocked off for the Easter recess, conversations will be dominated by the unfolding Greensill scandal and the possible impact it could have on the Conservatives.

This is a complicated story with multiple angles to investigate in the coming weeks and months. There is the potential real-world impact of Greensill’s collapse on Liberty Steel workers, and the opaque financial arrangements between the two companies, into which the Business Select Committee is thought to be preparing an inquiry (the Treasury Select Committee rejected a call for an inquiry last week).

[See also: Corruption in Britain has reached new heights under Boris Johnson’s government]

There is also the question of Lex Greensill and Greensill Capital’s extensive government access during the Cameron era (he was reportedly given a desk and a pass in the Cabinet Office a decade ago, and access to at least 11 government departments), and the former prime minister’s subsequent hiring as a lobbyist for the firm, an appointment which the Committee on Standards in Public Life has privately indicated it will probe as part of a wider review into standards in public life. A report of the committee’s findings is due to be published in the autumn.

[Hear more on the New Statesman podcast]

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Labour has piled on much of the pressure that is resulting in the probes and inquiries mentioned above. But it is also hoping to focus minds on the implications of the Greensill story for the current day, calling for a probe into how Greensill qualified for a recent loan from the Coronavirus Large Business Interruption Loan Scheme (“CLBILS”). It raises questions about whether the British Business Bank broke the rules, or whether the rules were simply inadequate, ultimately bringing the Greensill story to the door of the current Conservative government and to Rishi Sunak.

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[See also: Will Keir Starmer sack Anneliese Dodds as shadow chancellor?]

The “sexiest” aspect of this story by far is the involvement of David Cameron, with yet another revelation from the Financial Times today that the former prime minister went on a camping trip in Saudi Arabia with Lex Greensill and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

There is no suggestion that Cameron broke any rules when he sent texts to Rishi Sunak to lobby for Greensill, but the links between Cameron and Greensill have prompted concerns over transparency from across the political spectrum. The former Cameron-era cabinet minister Eric Pickles has called for a “review of lobbying” in the wake of the revelations, stating: “Prime Ministers and ex-prime ministers are powerful people. It is important that the system is resistant to powerful people”.  

[See also: The Tories’ flag-flying is the shallowest form of patriotism]

The most accessible and immediately interesting area of the Greensill revelations is the extent of personal and professional networks and legal lobbying in our political ecosystem, well-known to those within Westminster but a matter of probable shock to the wider public. Labour’s challenge is to pin down both current and former Conservative governments on specific wrongdoing or incompetence. But one possible outcome of this story is that an unflattering picture of the links between business and politics that damages not only the Conservatives, but the political class in general.

Labour clearly needs to paint the Greensill scandal as a distinctly Conservative problem and Labour as the great reformer, rather than a problem with a disconnected political elite in general.