The Greensill scandal is not about one man, it shows corruption is now a method of government in Britain, argues Chris Nineham
The story of David Cameron’s relationship with Lex Greensill is one of shameless personal corruption. But the scandal is really about a system of government.
Former prime minister Cameron’s relentless lobbying among his political chums on behalf of Greenshill for personal gain is repellent.
It is made worse by the fact that Greensill pioneered ‘supply chain finance’, a practice which involved false accounting methods and has led to the collapse of Greensill Capital and a number of client companies with a huge loss of jobs and potential losses to the taxpayer.
It’s even more sickening given that Cameron campaigned against lobbying when he was prime minister. In one 2010 speech that must now make even him wince he argued:
‘There is a deepening suspicion that politicians are out to serve themselves and not the country. A couple of months ago I said that this was the next big scandal waiting to happen. I warned that the culture of excessive lobbying and quiet words in the Minister's ear was threatening to do even more damage to the battered reputation of Parliament.’
But this affair is about much more than lobbying, or one former prime minister’s undoubted lack of a moral compass. In one sense Cameron was unlucky. It is almost certain that his behaviour only emerged because of Greensill Capital’s spectacular failure. But it has opened up a window on Whitehall and tells us a lot about the modern way of doing government.
Two things about it strike you immediately. One is the sheer number of red lines which Cameron appears to have crossed. The other is the way people in positions of power seem to have regarded Cameron’s behaviour as completely normal.
To recap what we know so far, back in 2011 when he was prime minister, Lex Greensill was made an advisor at Number 10 around the time he was setting up his company Greensill Capital. Despite the fact that Greensill was a relative novice in the business world and had zero government experience he had his very own business card describing him as a ‘senior advisor’ to ‘the prime minister’s office’.
The main purpose of this appointment appears to have been to give him access to the government contracts and apparently Greensill spent his time pitching financial projects across Whitehall.
In 2015 Bill Crothers, one of Whitehall’s most senior civil servants, began working for Greensill as an advisor while still in office and then left Whitehall to become a full time advisor for Greensill. This move was approved by the Cabinet permanent secretary.
Fast forward to 2018 and Cameron, having failed to raise much from after dinner speeches or a flopped memoir, is given an advisor’s job by his friend Lex Greensill.
As a result in 2019, he arranged a private drink with Greensill, himself and Matt Hancock to discuss a payment scheme for the NHS. Sure enough in 2020, ‘Earnd,’ a mobile app connected to Greensill, was adopted for use by NHS employees to access their pay. Bill Crothers was present at this meeting.
In January 2020, just over a year after the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Cameron arranged a meeting between Greensill and the Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman in return for an extra grant of shares.
In the following months Cameron used his access to lobby cabinet ministers, senior civil servants and a No 10 special adviser for preferential treatment for Greensill. In particular he texted, emailed and apparently phoned Rishi Sunak to persuade him to include Greensill Capital in the Covid Corporate Financing Facility (CCFF). The ploy failed but Sunak replied saying he had ‘pushed’ his officials to try and find ways of admitting Greensill to a bank of England loan scheme.
All this would seem to break a number basic principles. Isn’t there supposed to be a separation between the political and business worlds and isn’t the government meant to make decisions in the interests of the electorate rather than particular businesspeople? Aren’t former politicians supposed not to deploy their contacts for personal gain? And isn’t Britain’s civil service part of a neutral state that is carefully protected from particular commercial pressures?
Apparently not. Here we have a businessman embedded in the heart of government, a former prime minister using his contacts to pursue business interests and ministers apparently happy to give preferential treatment to friends of friends.
The fact is the separation between commercial interests and the state has always been largely formal. The heads of the civils service, senior politicians and big business have always had close informal contact and the civil service has always run on the idea that the national interests and the interests of big business are pretty much the same thing.
When in 1974 Labour was elected on its most radical manifesto ever, industry minister Tony Benn was confronted by a senior civil servant warning him not to try and implement his programme. As he wrote in his diaries, Benn’s experience was that the Department of Industry acts ‘simply as a mouthpiece for the CBI’.
But things have changed. Since then, Thatcher and her successors have broken down many of the limited divisions that did exist. The public sector has been opened up to business as services have been sold off or outsourced at a spectacular rate. By 2018, half of total government spending on goods and services - more than £93 billion - went to third party providers.
Thatcher and her successors, Blair and Cameron in particular, went further and opened Whitehall itself up to business. Thatcher gave unaccountable and often industry-funded bodies called ‘quangos’ more and more control over state operations. Blair imported business expertise into government at levels unprecedented in peace time.
Under Cameron, regulatory bodies like the Food Standards Authority were replaced directly by groups of business representatives. In 2011 a ‘buddy’ scheme was introduced for 38 big companies in trade and industry to give them a direct line to minsters and top civil servants. By the end of 2012 the 38 companies involved, more than two-thirds foreign-based, had held 700 face to face meetings with ministers.
Cameron’s cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood even suggested opening up policy making itself to an external bidding process.
It is not surprising then that while in the past the civil service has made much of its internal career paths and its members’ commitment to public service, now nearly half of top civil servants are recruited from the private sector. A steady stream of ministers and top bureaucrats go on to high paid city jobs. This blurring of boundaries which amounts to a corporate takeover of Whitehall is quite simply the new normal.
Comically, as if to prove the point, Nigel Boardman, the lawyer heading up Johnson’s inquiry into lobbying, is a non-executive board member of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and belongs to a partnership of corporate lawyers with a history of campaigning against the regulation of lobbying!
All this shows that in the minds of Tories, government and business are virtually the same thing. As a result, corruption is endemic. This is why they have mostly failed to respond to the pandemic. They had neither the mechanisms nor the mindset to co-ordinate a government-led response. When faced with a problem, their instinct is to throw money at their private sector chums. So that is what they did.
One thing Cameron was right about. This is a set-up which is almost designed to undermine public confidence in Westminster, Whitehall and the establishment circus that surrounds it.
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Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.
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