MPs have voted to reject Labour plans for a parliamentary inquiry into lobbying in the wake of revelations over contact between government officials, former prime minister David Cameron and collapsed finance firm Greensill Capital.
Senior Tory William Wragg described Mr Cameron’s lobbying on behalf of Greensill as “tasteless, slapdash and unbecoming” and indicated his cross-party Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee could investigate the row.
The Treasury Select Committee will also examine lessons to be learned from the collapse of Greensill and the response of Chancellor Rishi Sunak and his department to lobbying by Mr Cameron on behalf of the company.
Boris Johnson insisted Nigel Boardman, the lawyer he has appointed to look into the matter, will lead a “proper” inquiry after it also emerged the government’s former procurement chief had worked for Greensill while still employed as a civil servant.
But calls by Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer for a “full” probe, including public hearings by a cross-party panel, were rejected on Wednesday as MPs voted by 357 votes to 262 to scupper plans for such an investigation.
It has been reported that UK health secretary Matt Hancock met Mr Cameron and Mr Greensill, the financier behind the now-collapsed Greensill Capital, for a “private drink” in 2019 to discuss a new payment scheme for the NHS.
It is the latest in a series of disclosures about Mr Cameron’s lobbying of four government ministers on behalf of the firm, including unsuccessfully attempting to increase access to government-backed loans during the coronavirus pandemic.
The loan applications were rejected and Greensill Capital subsequently filed for insolvency, rendering Mr Cameron’s reported tens of millions of share options in the firm worthless.
Mr Cameron has insisted he did not break any codes of conduct or rules on lobbying, although he has acknowledged that he should have communicated with the government “through only the most formal of channels”.
The revolving door
But the affair has also raised questions about a “revolving door” between Whitehall and the private sector, after it was revealed senior civil servant Bill Crothers began working for Greensill as a part-time adviser to the board in September 2015 and did not leave his role as Government chief commercial officer until November that year.
At Prime Minister’s Questions, Mr Johnson said he shared the “widespread concern about some of the stuff that we’re reading at the moment”.
He said that while it is a “good idea in principle that top civil servants should be able to engage with business and should have experience of the private sector”, it is not clear that boundaries “had been properly understood”.
Sir Keir repeatedly questioned Mr Johnson about the row and called for an “overhaul of the whole broken system”.
“The Greensill scandal is just the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “Dodgy contracts, privileged access, jobs for their mates, this is the return of Tory sleaze.”
He said Mr Greensill was brought into the heart of government as an adviser by Mr Cameron and later hired the former prime minister to act as his lobbyist, contacting Cabinet ministers including the chancellor and health secretary.
In a reference to the police corruption television programme Line Of Duty, Sir Keir said: “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.”
Tough on lobbying
In another Line of Duty reference, Mr Johnson insisted “we’re getting on with rooting out bent coppers” and that the Tories had been “consistently tough on lobbying”.
Mr Wragg said his committee “is and will be giving these matters proper consideration” and it is something “I am more than happy to take up as the AC-12 of Whitehall”.
Labour also criticised the prime minister’s appointment of Mr Boardman, whose father was a Tory minister, to lead the government’s inquiry.
He will pause his role as a non-executive director of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and will be unpaid for his inquiry work.
But Sir Keir said law firm Slaughter and May, where Mr Boardman is a senior consultant, had “lobbied to loosen lobbying laws”.
Shadow Cabinet Office minister Rachel Reeves said “it’s a fact that Nigel Boardman is a very good friend of the Conservative Government” and “what is being proposed by the Government is not remotely fit for purpose”.
“It’s not an inquiry, it’s not independent, it’s an insult to us all,” she said.
Speaking during the debate, West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine MP Andrew Bowie accused Labour of pursuing “blatant, tawdry politics”.
He said: “We all condemn the actions that are alleged to have taken place regarding Greensill and the involvement of the former prime minister.
“It leaves a bad taste in the mouth. As so many have said, far better than I could, it does tarnish us all.
“We do need to make sure we uphold the best possible standards in public life and ensure there is transparency in all interactions between companies, individuals and decision-makers in government.
“However, this is not at all the aim of the motion in front of us today. The motion, if passed, would do no such thing. It is blatant, tawdry politics.”
Downing Street said Mr Boardman is a “distinguished legal expert” and “an independent reviewer”.