Over a decade ago, UK’s then-aspiring Prime Minister David Cameron claimed that “lobbying in this country is getting out of control.” Months later, on entering Downing Street, he and his coalition partners vowed to clean up politics.
There is some bitter irony that the same man is now at the centre of a major lobbying scandal – one that vividly exposes the inadequacies of his reforms while in office.
Thanks to investigative journalists, here’s what we know so far:
Last year, Cameron used private channels to lobby senior government officials to secure emergency COVID-19 loans for a company named Greensill, which provided supply chain finance and employed him as an advisor. The former Prime Minister also held shares in Greensill, which means he had a personal financial interest in the outcome of the Treasury’s decision.
While his efforts were unsuccessful, published texts between Cameron and the current Chancellor Rishi Sunak show that the latter had “pushed” his Treasury colleagues to help Greensill out. The opposition party claims the Chancellor may have broken the ministerial code by doing so. Cameron now admits that his requests should have gone through the “most formal of channels” but maintains that he broke no government rules.
Transparency International UK is calling for reforms to increase transparency over lobbying and provide improved oversight over the revolving door between government and the private sector.
We also now know that Lex Greensill, the company’s founder, was brought on as an unpaid government advisor during Cameron’s tenure in office. He even held a business card claiming to be an advisor to the Prime Minister himself.
Around the same time, at least one senior civil servant and another government advisor took jobs with Greensill while still holding positions in the Crown Commercial Service – the government’s procurement arm – raising questions over serious potential conflicts of interest.
None of the above was disclosed through routine transparency publications, the revolving door watchdog ACOBA or the UK’s statutory register of consultant lobbyists.
In response, the UK government announced an inquiry led by senior lawyer Nigel Boardman to review the development of supply chain finance for Whitehall, including the role of Greensill. However, the opposition claims that the terms of the review aren’t broad enough and it looks like a cover-up.
The whole system doesn’t work, everyone knows it doesn’t work, everyone’s known for years it doesn’t work. David Cameron knew it didn’t work, which is exactly why his actions didn’t turn up anywhere on any official disclosure.
Transparency International UK has been warning for a long time that the public is largely left in the dark about who is trying to influence their government, when, how and for what purpose.
The UK lags behind its allies, like Canada, Ireland and the United States, where lobbying activity is more transparent and there are more controls on the revolving door between the public and private sector.
Without greater transparency, tougher rules and better oversight, these scandals will remain a regular feature of British politics, causing incalculable damage to confidence in the country’s democratic institutions.
To avoid another Greensill, action is needed now.
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