Sleaze and cronyism, time to make it stick

17th April 2021

Cameron and Greensill – happy days in Saudi Arabia

Tory sleaze is back in the news.  It never actually went away but a leading Tory has been caught out, former Prime Minister, David Cameron, no less.  When at No.10 Cameron appointed Lex Greensill, the founder of financial firm Greensill Capital, as an unpaid advisor.  At a loose end after his failed Prime Ministerial stint Cameron then became an adviser at Greensill Capital in 2018.  Using his government connections Cameron arranged for Greensill to meet Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, to discuss a new payment scheme for NHS trusts.  In April 2020 Cameron then took to texting Chancellor Rishi Sunak in order to persuade Sunak to allow Greensill to access government financial support.  

The Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (Acoba) has also revealed that the head of Whitehall procurement, Bill Crothers, salary £149,000 per annum, became an adviser to Greensill Capital while still working as a civil servant in 2015.  Crothers accrued a shareholding estimated to be worth $8m in 2019.

Cameron also brought in former Morgan Stanley banker, David Brierwood, as an adviser in 2014, around the same time as Lex Greensill and then, no surprises here, two months later Brierwood was magically recruited to Greensill Capital’s board as a director.

Acoba itself is hardly free from scandal, having appointed former Tory candidate and erstwhile leader of Reading Borough Council, Andrew Cumpsty, to the committee.  Cumpsty runs lobbying firm, Cumpsty Communications which on its web site boasts that it “acts as a link between the leaders of UK industry and the Conservative Party Cabinet.”

In spite of having established a network of cronies at the heart of the Tory Party and UK government Greensill Capital has collapsed. This has resulted in the extent of its lobbying network being revealed. Questions are being raised about undue influence being brought to bear upon ministers and whether government decisions have been shaped by those with a financial interest in the outcome..

A number of official enquiries have been ordered as a result.  Always keen to get one over on his one time mate David Cameron, current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has appointed corporate lawyer, Nigel Boardman, to launch an inquiry into the Greensill scandal, to explore the role of Lex Greensill as a government adviser; the lobbying activities of Cameron and others; and the financial arrangements with Greensill.  While purporting to be ‘independent’ the Boardman Inquiry is widely seen to be an inside job with a remit to only rock the boat gently, if at all.

Other inquiries underway include the Treasury Select Committee, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee,  the Public Accounts Committee, a Cabinet Office review and an inquiry by the Committee on Standards in Public Life.

All of which looks like a lot of concern is being addressed with a lot of activity underway but in reality is likely to generate so much smoke and mirrors.  The raison d’etre of the Conservative Party is to serve the interests of big business and finance capital.  The fact that one bear got caught with his paws in the honey pot is unlikely to result in the lid being screwed on much tighter. 

Some rules on lobbying and access to ministers will change but the bureaucracy will rumble on.  The complexity of some of the accusations will make it difficult to sustain public interest, unless the accusations of sleaze can be made to stick. Rachel Reeves is leading the charge from the Labour Front Bench on this front. In the short term the revolving door between Whitehall and the private sector may be slowed temporarily but it is unlikely to stop.

The latest revelations follow hard on the heels of a string of accusations of cronyism in the awarding of contracts for PPE during the current pandemic and the appointment of unskilled political appointees, such as Dido Harding, to run significant programmes such as Test and Trace, without any public health knowledge or expertise.   

The government has also, not too subtly, been reshaping key positions in the media.  Tory donor, Richard Sharp, was appointed Chair of the BBC while former Daily Mail editor, Paul Dacre, is Boris Johnson’s choice to become chair of media regulator Ofcom.   More recently the government has vetoed the re-appointment of two women, film producer Uzma Hasan and broadcasting executive, Fru Hazlitt, to the Channel 4 board of directors.  Some doors revolve, others are simply slammed shut.

No Tory government is ever free from financial scandal. It is part of the DNA of the Conservative Party that it cultivates and sustains links with the private sector in order to oil the wheels of capitalism.  A Tory government led by Boris Johnson, not noted for his acquaintance with the truth or any sense of aversion to cronyism, is likely to be worse than most.  Before the window of opportunity closes, Labour need to press home the advantage and make sure that the reality of Tory sleaze and cronyism sticks firmly in the minds of the British public.

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