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14 April 2021

Leader: Careless people

The UK is still living with the mess left behind by David Cameron’s government and the chumocracy he nurtured. 

By New Statesman

In February 2010, a few months before he became prime minister, David Cameron declared of lobbying: “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.”

A decade later, Mr Cameron has become an emblem of the culture he claimed to disdain. As an adviser to Greensill Capital, the financial services company that collapsed last month, the former prime minister spent two months harrying the government for business. He texted the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, multiple times, phoned two other ministers and emailed a senior No 10 adviser. During this period Mr Cameron was far from a disinterested party: he reportedly hoped to reap up to £60m from his now worthless shares in the company.

Though the government resisted most of Mr Cameron’s entreaties, Greensill was allowed access to a state-backed pandemic loan scheme, through which it lent £400m to Sanjeev Gupta’s GFG Alliance steel empire and companies linked to him (bypassing the official maximum of £50m per group).

On 11 April, more than 30 days after the Financial Times reported its attempts to contact him, Mr Cameron conceded that there were “important lessons to be learnt” but said he broke “no codes of conduct and no government rules”. Yet this reflects the inadequacy of the 2014 lobbying act his administration introduced: the ease with which failed politicians can tout for business is a feature, not a bug, of the system.

Alistair Graham, the former chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, has described the Greensill affair as the “biggest lobbying scandal in a generation”. In a competitive field, that may be so. But as John Gray writes in this week’s cover story on page 20, the scandal illuminates a larger truth about Mr Cameron’s character: “It is not so much the spectacle of indolent, shambling greed that is remarkable; it was only to be expected that a life of mere affluence would fail to satisfy Cameron’s mammoth sense of entitlement. Instead, it is the credulity he displayed.”

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

David Cameron is not without political talent; he has charm, moderate instincts and is verbally fluent. He returned the Conservative Party to government after 13 years in opposition and in 2015, against Ed Miliband’s hapless Labour Party, achieved the first Tory parliamentary majority since 1992. But his premiership has not aged well.

It was under Mr Cameron that the UK pursued destructive austerity, a doomed renegotiation with the EU, a botched reorganisation of the NHS, dysfunctional welfare reform, an unworkable net migration target and a delusionary “golden era” with China. The bid to make Greensill Capital a virtual arm of the British state is but the latest fantasy that has unravelled.

In a foreword to the paperback edition of his memoirs, published last year, Mr Cameron contended that austerity left the UK better prepared for the pandemic: “Covid-19 was the rainy day we had been saving for.” Yet, far from building resilience, austerity enfeebled the state. Real-terms reserves for public health spending in England fell by 30 per cent from 2015 to 2019, while the prevalence of diabetes and obesity rose. Local authorities, which in less centralised countries were crucial to the pandemic response, lost an average of 60p in every pound of government grants from 2010 to 2020. Cuts to schools increased class sizes, making social distancing harder.

But according to Mr Cameron’s self-serving narrative, none of this matters. In office, the prime minister and his clique were characterised by an insouciant style: policies were pursued often with little regard for their consequences.

“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made,”  wrote F Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby.

As Mr Cameron trawls the world for wealth, it seems other people are cleaning up the mess left behind by his government and the chumocracy he nurtured. 

[see also: Podcast: What the David Cameron lobbying scandal reveals about UK politics]

This article appears in the 14 Apr 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Careless people