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Saved by incompetence

Wednesday 14 April 2021

If David Cameron were better at lobbying, he might be in even hotter water over the Greensill scandal. His statement and exchange with Rishi Sunak show that he was a poor advocate for a failing business


Rishi Sunak’s text to David Cameron, 3 April 2020:

“Hi David, thanks for your message. I am stuck back-to-back on calls but will try you later this evening and if gets too late, first thing tomorrow. Best, Rishi”.

A classic fobbing off from Rishi Sunak. There is more than a sense here that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is instantly aware of something that David Cameron subsequently concedes in his long statement (see below), namely that texting is the wrong medium for this conversation. It is too informal, too inside, too opaque, available only to those in the know. You can also hear the faint whisper of the power imbalance. This is a text from a former Conservative prime minister, a former boss, the man in charge at the point where Sunak became an MP. Sunak clearly feels he has to reply, and with more deference than he would if it were anyone else. Yet there is also a hint of the embarrassing descent from power that is suffered by British prime ministers when they leave office. In America, the departed president is amply taken care of and sent off with a lavishly funded office to establish a library and a foundation to do good works. In Britain, we throw them out onto the street and ask them to make a living while deploring all they might do while doing so. There are two ways to approach this – the good way, which is to make a bit of money quietly (Major, Brown, May) or the bad way, which is to make a lot of money loudly (Blair).

Cameron had been, until this text, in the first category. As soon as he sends these fateful messages to Rishi Sunak he moves into a category of his own which is a former prime minister who is making not very much money (Greensill, the company in question, has collapsed after all), extremely loudly. All of the coverage of Cameron’s failed attempt at lobbying has concentrated, understandably, on his proximity to power but this text from Rishi Sunak in fact points out his distance from power. The man who used to be king is told “sorry mate, I’m really busy doing an actual job, I’ll try you later”. There are a series of back-to-back calls, all more important than you, none of which can be delayed. It wasn’t like this for Cameron once and the exchange, even if it does open the door onto something untoward, first invites us to note how forlorn our former prime ministers instantly become. A young man he helped to get elected as a Tory MP in Richmond is now not taking his calls.

Rishi Sunak’s text to David Cameron, 23 April 2020:

“Hi David, apologies for the delay. I think the proposals in the end did require a change to the Market Notice but I have pushed the team to explore an alternative with the Bank that might work. No guarantees, but the Bank are currently looking at it and Charles should be in touch. Best, Rishi”.

So far the Cameron-Sunak letters lack something. Chiefly, interest or verve. It would be good to see both sides of the exchange. The correspondence between Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage about algorithms springs to mind but it would be a lot less famous if all we had were a couple of texts from Ada. In the Greensill affair, Cameron is coming over rather more like Ada Lovelace’s father, Lord Byron: mad, bad and dangerous to know. Or maybe this is like the three year exchange of letters between TS Eliot and Groucho Marx in which Eliot did the gags and Marx did the poetry criticism. It is all pretty dull, on the surface, with none of the bawdiness you might expect from intimates, along the lines of the letters between Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis. Or perhaps these texts are the opening chapters of the world’s worst epistolary novel. Perhaps Cameron and Sunak will rewrite Dostoevsky’s Poor Folk as Rich Folk, though the obvious precursor, all the way through the title though no further, is Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

This is a dangerous liaison, and Sunak knows it. His apology for the delay tells you he knows he ought not to reply, but he feels he should. But then he goes further than he ought to have done. The wiser course would have been to ask someone else to reply, officially. Or, better still, not respond at all. That said, the most important question for the review into the affair, which has been created largely so that ministers do not have to ask questions on it in the meantime, is that when “Charles” (Charles Roxburgh, second in command at the Treasury) did look into the Greensill application for funds under the Covid Corporate Financing Facility, the request was denied. Perhaps the case was given greater priority on account of Cameron’s rather hopeless lobbying. Even if so, it is helpful to the Chancellor that no money changed hands. He was naïve to be drawn in, and he might well have been lucky that the request did not succeed. It really was rather silly of both of them to have a conversation which, in the event that funds were forthcoming, would be very hard to defend. So the most notable thing about this text message is not what it says, but that it should exist at all.

David Cameron’s Statement, April 11 2021:

Since the collapse of Greensill Capital, many questions have been raised about my dealings with Lex Greensill in government, and my subsequent involvement with the company. I completely understand the public interest in this issue, given the impact of Greensill’s collapse on the hundreds of people who worked for the company and on other businesses and livelihoods. I feel desperately sorry for those affected… Having said this, many of the allegations that have been made about these issues are not correct. Lex Greensill was brought in to work with the government by the former cabinet secretary, Jeremy Heywood, in 2011. He was not a political appointee, but part of the Civil Service drive to improve government efficiency…. The idea of my working for Greensill was never raised, or considered by me, until well after I left office. I took up the position as a part-time senior adviser to Greensill Capital in August 2018.

I barely knew the guy. Lex who? There are two points of emotional manipulation in this passage. The first is to suppose that the public interest – or rather the press interest based on the assumption that there is a public interest (the public themselves not really caring that much) – is fired by the hundreds of job losses. That really is not the case. The interest derives solely from Cameron’s involvement and so to open with these condolences strikes a rather false note. So too does the use of Jeremy Heywood’s name. The late Lord Heywood is, of course, a by-word for integrity so Cameron is borrowing his credentials which is a rather unimpressive thing to do with a man who died so tragically young. The statement could have said that this was a civil service initiative without needing to specify it was Heywood’s. The final point about this opening is that nobody is really alleging that Cameron brought Greensill into government because he knew him. The remaining questions are all about what happened next. So the opening to the statement does not, as it should, answer the charge at once. It creates a straw man and then briefly thrashes him.

My responsibilities included providing geopolitical advice to the leadership, helping to win new business, speaking for the company at conferences and events, and helping with plans for international expansion. As part of my work, I assisted with presentations made by the company overseas, including in the US, Singapore, South Africa, Australia and the Gulf. While visiting the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in January 2020 to advise on their forthcoming chairmanship of the G20, I also – with Lex Greensill – met with a range of business and political leaders, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman… While in Saudi Arabia, I took the opportunity to raise concerns about human rights, as I always did when meeting the Saudi leadership when I was prime minister.

It is worth remembering that, at the time of this lobbying, it had already become clear that Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince, had the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi on his hands. The rather blithe addition of raising concerns about human rights hardly meets the objection. This, rather than the failed attempt to secure Covid funding from the Bank of England, might be what sticks to David Cameron in this affair. It must be tempting to open up a black book when it includes world leaders but this is precisely the moral hole that Tony Blair fell into before he clambered out. There is also something unreal about the global scale of Greensill’s ambitions. For a company that has now filed for insolvency, Greensill seems awfully close to dominating the whole world. It may well be that the lobbying aspect of this case is hard to pin down but the Saudi connection is as depressing as it always is. As for the rest of it, the stench here is less of corruption but of comic incompetence. It’s less Watergate, more Walter Mitty.

While I understand the concern about the ability of former ministers – and especially prime ministers – to access government decision makers and the sense, and reality, of ease of access and familiarity, I thought it was right for me to make representations on behalf of a company involved in financing a large number of UK firms. This was at a time of crisis for the UK economy, where everyone was looking for efficient ways to get money to businesses. It was also appropriate for the Treasury to consider these representations… I was breaking no codes of conduct and no government rules. The Registrar of Consultant Lobbyists has found that my activities did not fall within the criteria that require registration. Ultimately, the outcome of the discussions I encouraged about how Greensill’s proposals might be included in the Government’s CCFF initiative – and help in the wake of the coronavirus crisis – was that they were not taken up.

The next big scandal, said David Cameron when he was prime minister, will be in lobbying. Here he sets out his innocence and comes close to an insight about what has actually happened. The Registrar of Consultant Lobbyists has, indeed, already suggested that  the case lies outside their remit. But a real scandal needs consequences as well as intentions, and in this case there are no enduring consequences because the Treasury and the Bank of England did not respond to the blandishments of Cameron on behalf of Greensill – at least not with hard cash. There are still a series of questions to be answered about Cameron’s objectives and the procedural rules followed in the wake of his intervention. Clearly, as he concedes himself, not every company has the Chancellor’s personal mobile. Yet his poor lobbying might, in the end, be the get-out clause. If Cameron had been more persuasive, or Sunak even more suggestible than he was, then public funds would have gone to a failing enterprise. Follow the money, says the rule. It is to Cameron’s great advantage that, contrary to his hopes, there is no money to follow.

However, I have reflected on this at length. There are important lessons to be learnt. As a former prime minister, I accept that communications with government need to be done through only the most formal of channels, so there can be no room for misinterpretation. There have been various charges levelled against me these past weeks, mainly that I made representations to the government on behalf of a company I worked for. I did. Not just because I thought it would benefit the company, but because I sincerely believed there would be a material benefit for UK businesses at a challenging time.

This final appeal is never going to wash. Whether or not there was any advantage to the nation in Greensill’s credit schemes Cameron was set to profit too much, as a shareholder, for this appeal to be plausible. His final defence is that, in future, he might be more formal in his approaches. The government has, so far, refused to release Cameron’s text messages. This would be like having all of Virginia Woolf’s letters to Vita Sackville-West but none of the replies – only much less interesting, of course. The government has simply invoked section 41(1) of the Freedom of Information Act relating to information provided in confidence and refused to comply. Cameron might be advised to release his texts to Sunak voluntarily if he is confident he has no case to answer. Why won’t he? Perhaps because there is something he really does not want the world to see. In which case it is to be hoped that even a toothless review will unearth it. But more likely because he is embarrassed to be caught begging for money on behalf of a financial chancer who has crashed the company and turned his shareholding into nothing. Whatever the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia promised to do won’t help now.

Philip Collins is a former Number 10 speechwriter.

Photograph by by Kirsty Wigglesworth/Getty Images