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Explainer: The Greensill affair, 'a return of Tory sleaze' and how Ted Hastings could sort it all out

A former Prime Minister is causing trouble for the current one.

brexit Former British Prime Minister David Cameron. Source: PA Images

“A RETURN OF Tory sleaze” is how Labour leader Keir Starmer described the lobbying scandal that has engulfed Westminster and put former PM David Cameron in the firing line.  

The Greensill affair has come about following reports on the scramble among British firms to get access to the billions of pounds of Covid loans made available by the UK government.  

The controversy has shone the spotlight on the overlap of money and influence in Whitehall, with new revelations connecting Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and a Premier League football team. 

So how did we get here? 

PastedImage-61351 Source: Twitter/MetroUK

The story first began to seep out last month when the Financial Times reported details on how Cameron lobbied on behalf of Greensill Capital, a now defunct financing company founded by Australian billionaire Lex Greensill. 

Cameron served as UK Prime Minister from 2010-2016 but resigned and left politics after the Brexit referendum.

Cameron had campaigned to stay in the EU but had proposed the referendum in an ultimately failed bet to quell Euroscepticism within his own Tory party. 

After he left politics Cameron went on to become a paid advisor to Greensill, amassing share options potentially worth millions.

Those options are now worthless after Greensill imploded last month, threatening thousands of jobs at companies that relied on its financing. 

Reports on Cameron’s lobbying on behalf of the company say that he personally asked Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak to help Greensill access the Government’s Covid Corporate Financing Facility (CCFF). 

Cameron said it was “nuts” to exclude Greensill Capital from the scheme, according to emails seen by the Sunday Times. 

Cameron also sent a number of texts to Sunak’s private phone asking for support for Greensill through the CCFF.

The Guardian reports that Sunak replied to Cameron in April 2020 and that he told Cameron that he had “pushed the team” in the Treasury to see if he could arrange full access to CCFF loans. 

The former Conservative leader also emailed a senior Downing Street adviser, pressing for a rethink on Greensill’s application for access to emergency funding.

shutterstock_1939063384 Source: Shutterstock/mundissima

It was later reported that Cameron had also arranged a “private drink” between Health Secretary Matt Hancock and Lex Greensill to discuss a payment scheme later rolled out in the NHS.

Hancock was then pulled further pulled into the wider cronyism row when it was revealed yesterday that he has shares in a family company which has contracts with the NHS.

The Health Service Journal (HSJ) reported that Topwood Limited, which is owned by his sister, provides shredding and storage services and won NHS contracts in Wales and England. 

Hancock declared in the MPs’ register of interests in March of this year that he has shares in the company. 

Have any laws been broken?

Under a 2014 law passed by Cameron’s own government, it is an offence for someone who is not a registered lobbyist to directly lobby ministers or senior civil servants. 

Last month, however, the UK’s Registrar of Consultant Lobbyists cleared Cameron of breaking lobbying rules, because, as an employee of Greensill, he was not required to declare himself on the register.

Cameron has accepted that he should have communicated with the government “through only the most formal of channels” rather than text messages to Sunak.

Breaking his weeks of silence over the weekend, Cameron said that having “reflected on this at length”, he accepts there are “important lessons to be learnt”.

How far does the Cameron/Greensill connection go back?

This is how the scandal has gotten legs in the past couple of weeks, with further revelations that Lex Greensill was given privileged access to Whitehall departments when Cameron was Prime Minister. 

It has emerged that Grensill had a Downing Street business card that described him as “Senior Adviser, Prime Minister’s Office” and which gave a personal No 10 email address at which he could be contacted. 

It was also revealed that former head of government procurement Bill Crothers began working for Greensill Capital as a part-time adviser to the board in September 2015, almost a year before Cameron departed.

The UK’s Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (Acoba) is supposed to vet former ministers and senior officials moving to business positions but it appears this did not happen in Crothers’ case. 

In a startling revelation, the chairman of Acoba Eric Pickles has said he was told by the Cabinet Office that this approval was unnecessary as Crothers was already working for the firm and so the appointment did not have to be declared.

Further links between the government and Greensill have been established, with David Brierwood combining a role as a crown representative in the Cabinet Office with being a director at Greensill for three and a half years.

Speaking during PMQ’s on Wednesday, Labour leader Keir Starmer said that Lex Greensill was essentially brought into the government as an adviser by Cameron, before the roles were reversed and he hired Cameron. 

“The Greensill scandal is just the tip of the iceberg,” Starmer said.

Dodgy contracts, privileged access, jobs for their mates, this is the return of Tory sleaze. And now, even more unbelievably, we know the government’s head of procurement, no less, became a Greensill adviser while he was still a civil servant.

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In a reference to hit police corruption drama Line Of Duty, Starmer added: “The more I listen to the Prime Minister, the more I think Ted Hastings and AC-12 is needed to get to the bottom of this one.”

Johnson himself appeared to be caught off guard when asked by Labour’s Ruth Cadbury when he had last spoken to Cameron. 

“I can’t remember when I last spoke to Dave,” was his reply. 

What happens now?

A number of investigations are set to take place.

Boris Johnson said on Sunday that he had commissioned a wide-ranging independent review into Greensill Capital that would examine how British government contracts were secured by the company and as well as the actions of the former minister.

The review is to be led by Nigel Boardman, a non-executive board member of the Department for Business who has previously reviewed the Cabinet Office procurement processes. 

On Wednesday, it was confirmed that the powerful cross-party Treasury Committee will also investigate the collapse of Greensill Capital and the way Rishi Sunak’s Treasury responded to lobbying for the firm by Cameron. 

That investigation is set to begin next week. 

What’s this about the Saudis?

In a slightly off-topic but semi-related lobbying story, the Daily Mail reported on Thursday that Boris Johnson intervened after a Saudi bid to buy Newcastle United FC ran into difficulties last year. 

The paper reported that the Prime Minister asked one of his top aides to investigate after Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman warned that a row over the sale of the Premier League club could damage relations between the two countries.

The crown prince reportedly asked Johnson to “correct and reconsider” a “wrong” decision by the Premier League which was accused of standing in the way of a £300 million deal to sell the club.

- With reporting by Press Association 

 

 

About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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