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One of Martin Amis’ characters in London Fields says the whole world is darts. He speaks satirically. ConservativeHome says the whole world is lobbying. We write seriously.
From the puniest constituent to the mightest campaigner, everyone wants something from government – except the odd (literally so) hermit. MPs inboxes seethe and choke with e-mails, many of them mass-manufactured. If they become Ministers, they get even more.
Some of these petitioners want to profit from their lobbying and others don’t. If businesses don’t make profits, they can’t pay taxes: one can’t tax a loss. Without profits, there is no National Health Service, nor any other state sevice.
We don’t believe for a moment that most business people who want to make a profit are driven wholly, or even mainly, by greed. Even if some are, the net good brought about by the profits outweigh the net bad done by the greed (except to the business person himself). Which brings us to David Cameron.
The former Prime Minister wanted Greensill to make a profit so that he could make money in share options – though his statement about the matter claims that “their value was nowhere near the amount speculated in the press”.
He also says that “Greensill was one of the fastest growing UK FinTech businesses. I was attracted by the solution it offered, supporting businesses to gain access to working capital” and that “its product, Earnd…was, to my mind, an antidote to exploitative payday lending schemes”. We have no reason to disbelieve his account of this other motive.
Nonetheless, the ever-image-conscious Cameron is clearly trying to salvage his reputation. For the reason we set out above, we believe that what we was thinking isn’t a problem – except maybe for him – but what he was doing is.
After all, he acknowledges himself that it was mistaken to try to keep his lobbying of Ministers on behalf of Greensill off the books: “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”.
So far, so conventional: and it would be easy for us to join everyone else this morning in pouring a bucket of ordure on Cameron’s head, as we did often did when he was Prime Minister (especially given his statement‘s cynical timing).
Instead, we want to take a less usual course, and ask: how come he finds himself in this situation in the first place? Why is he – literally – who he is? Why is he still David Cameron esq, and not Lord Cameron, translated to the Upper House where he might have thought twice about lobbying for Greensill in the first place, let alone covertly?
For the same reason, surely, as John Major is not Lord Major, Tony Blair is not Lord Blair, and Gordon Brown is not Lord Brown. Is the gain of putting on ermine worth the pain of declaring one’s interests?
We don’t mean to suggest that Sir John or Brown or even Blair are in the same boat as Cameron. But only one recent former Prime Minister has neither gone to the Upper House nor fled the Lower, thereby opening up her activities to its Register of Members’ Interests – Theresa May.
These men are part of the same story: of how, as the old class barriers broke down, politics has become a career rather than a vocation, with MPs as professional politicians rather than elected representatives (like, say, councillors).
You enter the Commons; achieve high office – and get out as fast as you can. If you have reservations about whether this change is for the better, you will also have them about the solutions that will now be offered to the problem which Cameron currently represents.
These are, broadly: more declarations; more restrictions. More of what has brought Parliament the Register, the Nolan Principles, the Code of Conduct (for both MPs and Ministers), the Commissioner for Standards, IPSA.
In other words, more of the medicine that is worsening the current illness. Obviously, Parliament needs some minimum standard to curb abuses, of which a register of interests will be part. But yet more restrictions on people who have served as Ministers will mean yet another incentive not to become one.
And where, after all, is the real scandal in the Greensill affair? Not, in our view, in Cameron’s employment by the company, the suitability or otherwise of which is a matter of taste, or even in the improper manner of his lobbying.
Rather, it is in the question of what on earth Lex Greensill himself was doing as an adviser to the Coalition in the first place? Bringing in outsiders to government is scarcely novel. But doing so when they are neither civil servants, not appointed formally with clear ministerial oversight and accountability, is…unusual.
“The truth is, I had very little to do with Lex Greensill at this stage – as I recall, I met him twice at most in the entirety of my time as Prime Minister,” Cameron says in his statement, and there is no reason to doubt him.
We don’t need it to tell us that Greensill was ushered into government at the instigation of Jeremy Heywood, with whom he had worked during a period in the private sector at Morgan Stanley. “In bringing him in,” the former Cabinet Secretary “was acting in good faith to solve a real problem”, says Cameron.
Why then was he not appointed as an adviser formally? And – talking of conflicts of interest – what about any that may have arisen between Greensill’s work as a banker and his status as…what exactly?
The picture painted by reports of Greensill’s activities, during the weeks since the story first broke, is of bemused civil servants seeing off a man sent to them by another civil servant – the most senior one of all, and one they would not have been anxious to cross.
This is where any new codes or rules should bite. Perhaps Darren Tiernay, the Government’s new Director General of Propriety and Ethics, should be turning his attention not to Ministers but to senior civil servants.
Then again, it is ultimately futile to be, as T.S.Eliot put it, “dreaming of systems so perfect that no-one will need to be good”. Nothing can halt “the lunches, the hospitality, the quiet word in your ear”; certainly not the last, in a world in which people will always know people who know other people – that’s to say, Ministers.
That last quote is from Cameron himself, speaking in his halcyon days when, as he put it years later, “I was the future once”. Lobbying was, he said, “the next big scandal waiting to happen”.
The scandal that somehow never happens is that of the power that accrues in the hands of unelected officials – in this case, of those of Heywood who, though undoubtedly a brilliant public servant, ushered into government a banker with no formal role with whom he himself had previously worked commercially.
The best-known Director General of Ethics and Propriety in recent years has been the fearsome Sue Gray – now returning to the Cabinet Office.
She is undoubtedly a woman of the highest probity, to drop into civil service-ese. But the very existence of this post, which “oversees the Honours Secretariat and Privy Council Office and provides support for the Cabinet Secretary on the operation of Government”, points more widely to where a big slice of power in our system truly lies.
We mean her no disrepect whatsoever in saying that the story of Greensill is one of institutional as well as personal failure – of the Sue Gray-ification of British politics.