To understand why the former prime minister behaved as he did over Greensill, you have to grasp how very strange the plutocratic world of senior Tories really is
On 3 May 2012, the night of his second defeat of Ken Livingstone for the London mayoralty, Boris Johnson spoke to David Cameron. “This is my last election, Dave,” he said. “I want to go and earn some money.” To which the then prime minister replied: “That’s bollocks.”
Cameron was quite right. Not only did Johnson carry on fighting elections with a vengeance, he also led the Brexit referendum that drove his fellow Old Etonian out of Number 10. In July 2019, he became prime minister, and followed that up by winning an 80-seat majority for the Conservatives in the general election five months later.
Instead, it was Cameron who went off to “earn some money” – with consequences that are now engulfing Westminster and Whitehall. The Greensill scandal, which started life as a few texts between the former PM and Rishi Sunak, has now metastasised into something of much greater scope and apparent malignancy.
Though it ended up collapsing in March, the financial services company Greensill Capital evidently nursed an extraordinary and delusional dream. It sought a central position in relation to the post-pandemic NHS and other public services, much as Halliburton, the energy industry giant once headed by Dick Cheney, had made itself the principal corporate beneficiary of the Iraq War.
At the heart of this ambition was an app called Earnd, that would supposedly enable health service staff in England to be paid daily rather than monthly. In October 2019, Cameron (by now an employee of the firm, holding shares that he expected to net him many millions), Matt Hancock and the founder of the firm, Lex Greensill, met for a “private drink” to discuss the app.
Meanwhile, Lord Prior, chairman of NHS England – a former Conservative MP, health minister, and deputy chair of the Tory Party – was facilitating meetings at which Greensill was able to lobby Baroness Harding, chair of the NHS health regulator, and the chief executives of NHS hospital trusts. The strategy was clear enough: with the halo brand of the health service embossed on its promotional material, Earnd would be unstoppable – and other Greensill products would follow and conquer all before them.
The questions posed by this saga lead everywhere. Why, for instance, was Bill Crothers, a senior Cabinet Office official, allowed to join Greensill as an adviser to its board in September 2015 while still a civil service employee? Why was Greensill himself given a secure Downing Street email, business card and desk in the Cabinet Office? Why were so many at the apex of government mesmerised by this gangly young man with a bridge to sell them?
On the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show yesterday, George Eustice, the Environment Secretary, conceded wanly that the half dozen inquiries already underway might force some “tweaks” to the regulation of lobbying and conflicts of interest. No kidding.
Naturally, the spotlight has settled on Cameron himself and upon his part in these ignominious antics. Part of him must now surely regret ruling himself out of the secretary-generalship of Nato, a role for which he was courted in 2017. A greater part of him must be asking himself how he got into this mess, and how he ever persuaded himself that it would all be absolutely fine.
The conundrum would be much easier to solve were Cameron a politician without ethical antennae; were he – like Johnson – a lifelong moral chancer. But he isn’t. In the parliamentary expenses scandal of 2008, he saw immediately that what mattered was not the official structure of rules, but a more fundamental public morality.
“Politicians have done things that are unethical and wrong,” he said. “I don’t care if they were within the rules. They were wrong.” At that moment at least, he displayed a more accurate moral compass than the beleaguered prime minister, Gordon Brown.
So what happened to that Cameron? The guy who said that “social responsibility” was at the heart of his politics; whose character formation owed so much to the fortitude of his beloved father, Ian, beset by lifelong ill health; and who declared himself a disciple of David Hume’s ethical optimism?
The nuanced answer, I think, is that the two Camerons are one and the same person, thanks to a phenomenon psychologists call “doubling”, whereby an individual’s moral self effectively bifurcates to enable the person to function without psychic collapse.
In clinical settings, this phenomenon explains how adulterous husbands go home to their wives unburdened by guilt; how corporate leaders whose companies depend upon indefensible labour practices give presentations on “moral capitalism”; how pilots who have dropped bombs on villages look their children in the eye. Please note: this is a tool of explanation, not moral acquittal.
Why should Cameron need to divide his persona thus? To understand why – to really understand – you have to grasp how very, very odd senior Conservatives are. I don’t just mean odd in the way that all political obsessives are: or odd in the quirky, tiresome, faux-Wodehouse sense that Jacob Rees-Mogg is odd. I mean, how absolutely strange they are as a tribe, as a community, as an affinity group.
Since the Greensill story broke, senior Tories have been furiously pointing out the many instances of Labour politicians shilling for companies, moonlighting, amassing very impressive collections of old English banknotes on the back of their past ministerial careers. And this is a perfectly fair point.
In 2010, to take but one example, three former Labour Cabinet ministers – Stephen Byers, Patricia Hewitt and Geoff Hoon – were suspended from the party over allegations that they had been exploiting their ministerial experience to procure lucrative lobbying consultancies.
Tony Blair enjoys the unusual distinction of being the only serving prime minister to have been interviewed by police (in the 2007 cash-for-honours scandal – not a matter of self-enrichment, it is true, but scarcely a shining example of ethical probity in politics). Last year, Labour’s Carwyn Jones, the former First Minister of Wales, defied a ruling by the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments that he had breached the ministerial code by joining the advisory board of GFG Alliance.
No: the distinction between the Tories and Labour is anthropological rather than ethical. Plenty of former Labour politicians seek to enrich themselves, mostly within the rules, some not. But they do so for prosaic reasons: to make money, to cash in, to catch up with their university peers who have been busy in the private sector. In the case of the Conservative tribe, by way of contrast, a much deeper, communal pathology is at work.
To be a member of the Tory oligarchy is no easy matter, and the membership fee – literally and metaphorically – is very high indeed. You don’t just need to live in London; you need to live in Westminster or certain postcodes in west London. Your constituency home has to be very well-appointed, and you’ll be expected to invest in a substantial rural property when you leave public service.
It’s not enough for your children to be privately educated: they need to go to Eton (or nearest equivalent). Holidays are not an opportunity for rest and relaxation but what the late economist Fred Hirsch called a “positional good”: principally a status symbol, rather than a source of recreation.
So a gite in Provence is just about all right. But Mustique or a week on a yacht is so much better. And if you don’t shoot or stalk, you’d better learn fast. I recall a pitiful conversation years ago with one of the party’s notional “modernisers”, still a force in the party today, off to Jermyn Street to spend a fortune on kit for the moors. “Why?” I asked. He shrugged: “Because I can’t afford not to.”
Again, I return to how peculiar senior Tories are. There’s nothing odd about wanting to be well-paid, or to provide for your family, or to be an entrepreneur or a wealth-creator. What is odd is wanting all those things simply so you can hang out with a social set; not as a personal ambition, but as a minimum requirement of group acceptance.
Which is why the most authentic memoir to emerge so far from the Cameron years is the diary of Sasha Swire (wife of his fellow Etonian Hugo Swire), set entirely in this appalling plutocratic landscape, and bristling with the assumption that there is no other place worth being; indeed, that to be anywhere else would be catastrophic.
This world, populated by the children of the Thatcher era, is a classic example of the “Inner Ring” famously described in 1944 by C.S. Lewis : “We hope no doubt for tangible profits from every Inner Ring we penetrate: power, money, liberty to break rules, avoidance of routine duties, evasion of discipline. But all these would not satisfy us if we did not get in addition the delicious sense of secret intimacy.”
But the desire to be included in this most exclusive of clubs makes sensible people do stupid things, mostly to make the money they need to remain part of it. It subordinates true decency to the dictates of the gang.
Much worse, it disfigures public life and trust in already precarious institutions. It is not just bad for Cameron that he should be so humiliated, but also for the great office he once held. Every new headline on Greensill reinforces precisely what the public already thinks about how Westminster and Whitehall work. It no longer shocks. It merely confirms – which is a lot more alarming if you care about the wellbeing of our democratic system.
For now, the present occupant of Number 10 is immunised from serious political danger by the success of the vaccine roll-out and by Keir Starmer’s failure to break through to public consciousness. But Johnson would be foolish to be sanguine about Greensill and where the trail might lead.
As he himself admitted to Dave all those years ago, the Tory longing to “earn some money” is a primal force in politics. And, in this case, it has lifted the lid on a sewer whose depths are still unknown.