David Cameron repeatedly lobbied the British government on behalf of a finance firm for the public good, and not his own financial gain, he told MPs Thursday.
The former U.K. prime minister has been at the center of Britain’s biggest lobbying row in a generation after it emerged he pressed senior ministers and officials to include Greensill Capital â€” a supply-chain finance specialist that employed him as an adviser after he left governent â€” in a coronavirus lending scheme.
Greensill collapsed earlier this year, leaving 3,000 jobs at a steel manufacturer at risk, and prompting the U.K.’s Financial Conduct Authority to launch an investigation into the “potentially criminal” circumstances of its failure.
Cameronâ€™s 2020 pleas to the Treasury â€” detailed in a frantic series of text messages and emails to senior figures like Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove published this week â€” were ultimately rejected. But the row has shone a harsh spotlight on the links between business and the state in the U.K., as well as the transparency setup meant to police conflicts of interest.
Hauled before MPs Thursday to explain his actions, the former Conservative prime minister, who quit government in the wake of the 2016 Brexit referendum, denied claims he had debased himself and his old office through his post-government corporate lobbying.
“I spent most of my adult life in public service,” he told the Commons Treasury committee. “I believe in it deeply. I would never put forward something that I didn’t think was absolutely in the interests of the public good, and that’s what I thought I was doing for Greensill.”
Cameron insisted he had not been aware of financial difficulties at Greensill at the time he had made use of his government contacts book, saying he felt the firm was in “good financial health” and not “in any serious financial difficulty.”
â€œIâ€™ve sat on the other side of the fence in government, where you have a credit crunch, you have difficulties in the credit market, and you’re desperate to get banks lending,â€ he said.
But Cameron faced the embarrassment of having his own 2010 condemnation of Westminster’s influence culture read back to him. The ex-PM once described lobbying as “the next big scandal waiting to happen,” a point seized on by Labour MP Siobhain McDonagh.
“You’re one of only five people post-war to have been reelected to lead our government,” she said, asking Cameron: “Do you not feel that you have demeaned yourself and your position by WhatsApp-ing your way around Whitehall?”
Committee Chairman Mel Stride, a Conservative, put it to Cameron that a â€œfear of losing outâ€ on the â€œsubstantial gainsâ€ he was set to make as a shareholder of Greensill amid a tightening of the global credit markets could be perceived as having driven his lobbying efforts. That charge was rejected by Cameron, who acknowledged he “wanted the business to succeed,” but said the exact nature of his shareholding in the firm was “a private matter.”
The ex-PM came armed with his own modest proposals for reforming Britain’s lax lobbying rules, which, despite changes introduced by Cameron’s own government, cover only a small subset of agency lobbyists and miss the vast swath of corporate influencers working directly for companies.
“Lobbying itself is a necessary and healthy part of our democratic process, but I accept there’s a strong argument that having a former prime minister engage on behalf of any commercial interest, no matter how laudable the motives and cause, can be open to misinterpretation,” he told MPs, saying he would be open to a longer post-government cooling-off period before taking on work.
Cameron said there may also be a case to include in-house lobbyists in Britain’s transparency register, provided that can be done “without excessive bureaucracy or damaging the interests of charities.”
Westminster’s revolving door watchdog, the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, long derided as ineffective by critics, is “well-established and in my view works,” Cameron argued, although he called for more guidance for ex-prime ministers who want to do more than just “be on the board of some big bank and make the odd speech around the world.”
Cameron, who told the committee his evidence marked a â€œpainful day,â€ reserved much of his contrition for the casual nature of his lobbying messages, saying he should have opted for a “more formal approach” than text messages to old colleagues. One such message, sent to senior Treasury official Tom Scholar and published this week, said: â€œSee you with [Chancellor] Rishiâ€™s for an elbow bump or a foot tap. Love Dc.â€
The ex-prime minister promised MPs: â€œIf ever there’s an occasion, and I doubt there will be, where a business has a commercial proposition to put the government, it will be a single letter or email.”
The Treasury committee’s probe is one of several Westminster inquiries into Greensill now underway, with MPs delving into the specifics of the firm’s collapse as well as wider reform of Britain’s lobbying arrangements. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has meanwhile ordered a review of Greensill’s influence on government supply-chain finance policy.