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“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. In this party, we believe in competition, not cronyism.”
David Cameron spoke in 2010, during a party conference speech on lobbying shortly before he became prime minister. We now know that Cameron knew better than us all. He lobbied ministers, civil servants, and special advisors.
The affair, first reported by the Sunday Times and Financial Times, has exposed yet another episode of cronyism and lobbying scandal in British politics. Cameron, who has been involved with Greensill since his premiership, lobbied ministers to bend the rules so the capital firm could receive COVID Corporate Financing Facility loans.
It is important to put this in the context of the other episodes during the COVID-19 crisis, where the significance of cronyism and unofficial lobbying has been highlighted. Contracts awarded to neighbours and WhatsApp messages used as a simple method to change tax policy – the COVID-19 pandemic permitted those in power to benefit themselves and their associates.
Cameron was hired as an advisor to Greensill in 2018, taking share options reportedly worth up to $60 million. The founder of the capital firm, Lex Greensill, was previously a senior advisor to Cameron and attended key meetings in 2019 with the current Health Secretary, Matt Hancock. Greensill Capital went on to provide services for a number of NHS trusts. Throughout 2020, months before the collapse of Greensill, Cameron tried to lobby the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, through several text messages and phone calls but he offered no assistance to the failing firm.
Nine meetings were held between Cameron and two permanent civil servants at the Treasury, Tom Scholar and Charles Roxburgh. These virtual meetings involved Cameron lobbying the civil servants for Greensill to obtain money from COVID Support Programmes.
The Greensill debacle comes after allegations against the Government regarding their handling of production contracts during the pandemic in which Hancock was privately contacted. Alex Bourne, acquaintance and former neighbour of current Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, secured a lucrative contract, reportedly worth £30m, to produce plastic tube vials for the NHS. Bourne’s company, Hinpack, was offered the contract after Bourne offered the company’s services via a WhatsApp message to Hancock. Initially set up to produce plastic takeaway boxes for the restaurant industry, the company, set up in 2018, had no prior experience in the production of medical devices. Hinpack is currently under investigation.
Boris Johnson was recently implicated in this style of WhatsApp lobbying. Texts from March of last year, between Johnson and Sir James Dyson, show the Prime Minister promising to ensure the tax status of his company would not be changed if they were to produce ventilators.
Johnson reportedly said, “I am First Lord of the Treasury and you can take it that we are backing you to do what you need.”
Two weeks later, Sunak announced a change to the regulation.
The revelations over the past year have highlighted a pattern in which quick WhatsApp messages to senior politicians by business interests and friends of government are being used to carry out unaccountable backdoor lobbying. Their willingness to help friends, family, and business partners by abusing their power has been highlighted by the crisis which created a unique opportunity for them to distribute vast sums of money with little scrutiny.
As such, never has an event better highlighted this attitude permeating throughout government and one which needs to be admonished.