In his 59 years as front man of the Rolling Stones, Sir Mick Jagger can rarely, if indeed ever, have penned a more aptly named song that coincided so perfectly with political events than yesterday’s surprise release, Easy Sleazy.
Jagger’s duet with the Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl is about lockdown but its title could well make it the soundtrack for the series of inquiries into a former prime minister’s lobbying for an Australian financier.
“It’s the return of Tory sleaze” tweeted Labour’s official account after a day that saw MPs vote against a parliamentary inquiry into David Cameron’s lobbying for Greensill Capital.
‘Carte blanche’ for Boardman
Boris Johnson had already announced an inquiry into the deepening scandal on Monday (April 12), saying he has given Nigel Boardman – “the most famous corporate lawyer of his generation”, and independent consultant at Slaughter and May – “carte blanche” to conduct an independent review into Cameron’s work for Lex Greensill. As such, the Labour Party motion proposing a parliamentary committee inquiry into the affair was, the PM argued, unnecessary so Johnson duly instructed his MPs to block the motion and vote against it.
They duly obliged despite Labour protests that Boardman’s review will be too narrow, lack transparency, and may not be as independent as required given the lawyer’s extensive links to the Conservative party, as well as claims he “whitewashed” a previous inquiry. The son of Lord Boardman (who was described as a “discreetly rightwing Tory minister” in the Guardian’s obituary) will undoubtedly come under intense scrutiny as he investigates Cameron’s links and lobbying for Greensill.
“This has all the hallmarks of another cover-up by the Conservatives,” said the shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Rachel Reeves. “Just as with the inquiry into Priti Patel’s alleged bullying, this is another Conservative Government attempt to push bad behaviour into the long grass and hope the British public forgets.
“We need answers on Greensill now – that means key players in this cronyism scandal like David Cameron, Rishi Sunak and Matt Hancock appearing openly in front of Parliament as soon as possible to answer questions.”
In the Commons even the government’s own anti-corruption champion, John Penrose – former minister and the husband of Baroness Dido Harding, former head of NHS Test and Trace – called for the lobbying laws, introduced by Cameron’s government, to be reviewed, telling the Commons the existing process is not sufficient. Labour’s motion to establish an anti-sleaze committee – resulted in accusations of “political opportunism” by senior Tories – was duly defeated, 357 votes to 262.
Inquiries mounting up
However, since then a flurry of inquires into the Greensill lobbying scandal have been announced. This afternoon (Thursday) Sky News’ Joe Pike tweeted the number had reached seven and by the time BBC Radio 4’s Six O’Clock News started, the national broadcaster was reporting “there are now a total of eight inquiries into lobbying at Westminster”.
The Public Accounts Committee released a statement this afternoon (April 15) saying they will launch an inquiry into the affair, following statements from both the Treasury Committee and the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee that they too will be investigating the fallout from the collapse of the financial firm. Simon Case, the cabinet secretary and country’s most senior civil servant has demanded any and all problematic jobs held by civil servants be disclosed as the scandal widened.
Cumpsty and Crothers and ‘another crony cover up’
Embarrassingly, the i revealed today that a senior member of the government’s own lobbying watchdog – the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (Acoba) – has his own company that advertises access to ministers on its website.
Andrew Cumpsty, a former Conservative councillor and the managing director of Cumpsty Communications, “also serves,” his website boasts, “as the Chairman and founder of the Enterprise Forum, which acts as a link between the leaders of UK Industry and the Conservative Party Cabinet.” Cumpsty also sits on the Secretariat of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for SME House Builders which lobbies ministers to influence policy on the residential sector.
The revelations about Cumpsty follow fast those about Bill Crothers, the government’s former chief procurement officer – a position created by the Cameron coalition government in 2011 to “cut waste”. Crothers – who oversaw billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money spent on government contracts – was employed by Greensill Capital while still working as a civil servant in 2015. The Guardian reports this evening that Crothers did not inform Acoba he had started his own firm while still working in Whitehall and “had a second private business interest before he left the civil service.”
The rub of it all, is that Crothers’s decision to work for Greensill Capital – who were seeking considerable government contracts – two months before he left the civil service was approved by the Cabinet Office, and meant the senior civil servant who earned up to £149,000 per annum (plus pension) “netted” a stake worth around $8 million.
It turns out that the man who signed off on Crothers’ job with Greensill – Sir John Manzoni – also held a job in the private sector while he was employed as a civil servant. Furthermore, the Telegraph reports that a third senior mandarin, Stephen Kelly held three private roles – all approved – while working for the government and that “former Metropolitan Police Commissioner Lord Hogan-Howe was a paid adviser to Greensill at the same time as working at the heart of Whitehall.”
‘System needs urgent reform,’ says Pickles
Lord Eric Pickles, the chair of Acoba today told MPs on the Public Administration Committee that he had warned of a scandal, “but this is not where I expected it to come from” ie. top civil servants and a former prime minister.
The Tory peer – who vets the new jobs of ministers and senior officials after they leave Whitehall to flag up potential problems and conflicts of interest – said the system is not resourced properly and needs urgent reform. Pickles told MPs “there doesn’t appear to have been any boundaries at all” between civil servants and the private sector and said his “eyebrows raised a full quarter-inch” when he learned of Crothers’ job with Greensill.
“I mean, if Mr Crothers had decided he wanted to have a milk round or something, I don’t think we would be terribly worried,” said Pickles.
“But his particular position, in terms of running procurement and working for a commercial organisation, is something that does require a full and frank and transparent explanation.”
The same full and frank and transparent explanations will be sought from all those called to any of the eight inquiries into a scandal that threatens to blow up even more and do for Johnson what accusations of sleaze and cronyism did to some of his predecessors at No 10.
The prime minister has shown he cares little for precendent never mind questions of conduct or the ministerial code (best evidenced by Patel keeping her job as home secretary despite the damning report following an inquiry). However, the sheer number of inquiries into this particular scandal may prove too great even for Johnson, the famed “greased piglet” to wiggle himself free from.