John Humphrys - Lobbying : How Big a Scandal?

April 16, 2021, 10:02 PM UTC

Maybe it’s too charitable just to describe as ‘ironic’ the fact that the man who predicted that lobbying was the next big scandal waiting to happen should now himself be in the thick of it. David Cameron might choose a different word. But it will hardly come as much of a surprise to most people that retired prime ministers and other senior politicians set about making a load of dosh after they leave office, and use their extensive ‘contacts’ to do so. What most certainly is causing mounting astonishment and outrage is the apparent readiness of politicians still in government to help them and, even more, that the cosy links between business and politics extend to senior civil servants too. It’s emerged that they are able to take lucrative second jobs on the side even while they’re still employed by the taxpayer exclusively to serve the national interest. The man who’s supposed to police the rules on all this has thrown his hands in the air complaining that, in effect, there are no rules. Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, says we’re seeing the ‘return of Tory sleaze’. Is it that? Or is it that and much more?

David Cameron couldn’t have been clearer. Back in 2010, just before he became prime minister, he said: ‘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. … We don’t know who is meeting whom. We don’t know if any favours are being exchanged … It arouses our worst fears and suspicions about how our political system works, with money buying power, power fishing for money and a cosy club at the top making decisions in their own interest.’ It’s hard to see how it could be better put.

And now we have the update. In 2018, two years after leaving Downing Street, Mr Cameron went work for a business, Greensill Capital, whose owner, Lex Greensill, had previously and almost overnight moved from obscurity to a role as ‘senior adviser’ to Mr Cameron as PM, and then built up his business so that it was valued at £7bn. Then it crashed. We now know that in 2019 Mr Cameron had arranged for a ‘private drink’ with his former subordinate, Matt Hancock, now health secretary and took Mr Greensill along with him. Soon after the NHS signed contracts with Greensill. Then Covid broke.

Mr Cameron texted Rishi Sunak, now the Chancellor of the Exchequer but formerly an obscure junior minister in his government, to press for Greensill to have access to a government-backed loan scheme. Mr Sunak replied that he would ‘push’ his officials to oblige - though ultimately to no avail. And in the meantime, Mr Cameron had flown off to Saudi Arabia with Mr Greensill in one of his private jets to lobby for business with the country’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, shortly after the

United States has claimed the prince’s direct involvement in the brutal murder of one of his critics, the Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi. Mr Cameron has since said it wasn’t just about lobbying: he ‘took the opportunity to raise concerns about human rights’. So that’s all right then.

Mr Cameron says he has done nothing wrong, except that he realises it would be better if ex-prime ministers communicated with their former underlings who had risen to top jobs by formal letter rather than text. It’s just the devilish convenience of modern media that causes such little mishaps to happen, it seems. But set his 2010 comments against his recent behaviour and it’s hard to see Mr Cameron’s reputation will ever recover.

If that were all there was to the story, we could all talk about bad apples and move on. But it’s not. Mr Cameron’s apparent insouciance about his post-Downing Street career seems to be born out of a sense that this is what they all do. Certainly many of his predecessors have sought to make a load of money after leaving office and not just by delivering boring, Olympian speeches that American audiences seem anxious to pay ludicrous fees to hear. They can also boost their bank accounts by providing what is sensitively called ‘advice’ to commercial bodies. Some even set up their own consultancies to provide such advice, even to foreign governments. Tony Blair is not going to go hungry and the setting up of consultancies, post-government office, has become an established career route for lesser political luminaries too.

It’s all a long way from the way Attlee spent his years after leaving Downing Street: travelling back and forth to the Lords by bus and keeping on top of the cricket scores.

In itself, there is nothing wrong with retired politicians providing advice for a fee. Some of it may be very good advice and if our economy and international relations work better for it, then good luck to them. But there has always been a fuzzy line between providing advice and being paid to facilitate access to those still in power. Two former foreign secretaries, the Tories’ Malcolm Rifkind and Labour’s Jack Straw, could both have expected to end their long, distinguished political careers in the Lords, but a journalistic sting which seemed to expose their willingness to cross this fuzzy line, was thought to put them beyond the pale.

The line may be fuzzy, but why does it matter that there should be one at all? The answer, quite simply, is that ministers should always act exclusively in the public interest full stop. If we tolerate ex-ministers being paid by commercial interests to lobby on their behalf with their old colleagues still in office, then we run the risk that those commercial interests will target politicians still in the job with inducements about the goodies available to them in retirement if they play ball now. Ministers would then become compromised in the decisions they take. In Mr Cameron’s own admirable phrase people running the government would soon come to seem like ‘a cosy club at the top making decisions in their own interests’.

What has come as a bombshell this week is the revelation that senior civil servants have been allowed to become members of such a cosy club too. It was that most sternly moral Victorian politician, William Gladstone, who reformed the civil service in the 1850s, ending the sale of jobs and filling them through competitive examination. Since then the civil service has enjoyed a reputation of incorruptible rectitude. Civil servants were dedicated solely to the public interest, we believed, and however dodgy and venal their political masters might be from time to time, they would ensure that government remained honest. Just as Catholic priests aren’t allowed to qualify their commitment to the church by also having families to bring up, so civil servants couldn’t moonlight. But now, it seems, they can.

And Greensill is at the centre of this too. It has emerged (thanks to the investigative activities of journalists rather than the sudden openness of government) that Bill Crothers, the government’s chief commercial officer, in charge of £40bn of public procurement, was allowed to become a director of Greensill Capital. That was in 2015 when Mr Cameron was PM. And after he left his government job he was kept on by government as an adviser. Mr Crothers says this unusual arrangement, whereby he was on the payroll of the government and a commercial outfit at the same time, was authorised by the Cabinet Office top brass, including the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood, and the chief executive of the Civil Service, Sir John Manzoni. His stake in Greensill Capital was estimated to be worth around £5m (before it crashed) and records show that after he’d left government service, Mr Crothers had five meetings with Sir John between 2016 and 2020. As for his being allowed to have a second job on the side, he says this is ‘not uncommon’. Indeed Sir John too was allowed to be a non-executive director of the brewing company SABMiller, earning him £100,000 a year, while he was running the civil service.

All this came as news to the man who is supposed to monitor the ‘revolving door’ between the civil service and business, Lord Pickles, the chair of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments. But the clue is in the title: it’s an ‘advisory’ board. It has no enforcement powers and only four staff to keep an eye on what civil servants get up to once they leave the service – and 34,000 did so last year, with the committee able to rule on only 108 of them at a senior level. Unsurprisingly Lord Pickles said on Thursday that he was ‘really unhappy’ with the ‘anomalies’ in the current regulatory system. He said: ‘Part of the problem we have got is that it has not been clear where the boundaries lay. In fact, I hope this does not seem rude – there does not seem to have been any boundaries at all.’

How have we come so far from the model of the Gladstone reforms? Those who are less scandalised by what has emerged would defend it by saying the reason lies in the fact that the civil service has never been quite as unsullied as its reputation would have us believe. Or, to put it another way, governments have for decades suspected that the civil service was nothing like as efficient as it ought to be and that the solution was to increase the input from the private sector where the need to make a profit forces business to be efficient. So governments of all colours have sought to strengthen the links between government and business – to encourage the revolving door.

Sir Jeremy Heywood was a good case of this. He was the supreme civil servant of his generation, working closely with five prime ministers. But in the middle of this stellar career in the public sector it was thought it would be good for government as well as for himself (it was certainly lucrative) for him to gain some private sector experience by going to work for the investment bank Morgan Stanley. It was there he met Lex Greensill who had ideas about how to make government invoicing more efficient, and it was Heywood who brought him into Downing Street. Both Mr Crothers and Sir John Manzoni came into the civil service from previous private sector careers.

As for Greensill, the rest is now history. He became too big for his boots, tried to turn a business providing a very conventional and not especially profitable financial service into a bank and then saw it collapse. It left businesses dependent on his loans (such as Liberty Steel) gasping for financial air, Mr Cameron holding worthless share options once thought likely to net him tens of millions of pounds, and the taxpayer potentially on the hook for hundreds of millions pounds worth of loan guarantees.

Sceptics will ask whether it was worth running such risks just to bring Mr Greensill’s private sector ‘expertise’ into government. After all, they say, his original offer was just to help government pay its bills more promptly. Couldn’t the government just have done that anyway? More to the point shouldn’t it have done so? Surely we all have a duty to pay our bills when they fall due. And that includes government and big business.

But it’s the wider story that’s the one that matters right now: the ‘scandal waiting to happen’ that Mr Cameron warned us about ten years ago and is now ensnaring not just retired politicians but working civil servants too. There are now no fewer than eight inquiries looking into it all.

So how big a scandal is it? Is it the ‘return of Tory sleaze’ or is it much wider than that? Do you think government and the private sector should continue to have a revolving door between them? If you do, how should it be regulated? And what do you hope will emerge from all the inquiries?

Let us know.