David Cameron has insisted that his intensive lobbying of Treasury officials on behalf of failed financial firm Greensill Capital was not unreasonable and did not intimidate them.
But the former prime minister admitted that he had “lessons to learn” about how to interact with government and suggested a new regulatory body should be created to advise ex-PMs on how to conduct themselves after they leave office.
Cameron’s words came in a tough afternoon of questioning from MPs investigating supply-chain finance business Greensill’s links with government and a succession of revelations about the involvement of the former PM and of ex-chief commercial officer Bill Crothers.
Treasury perm sec Sir Tom Scholar last month told MPs that Greensill lobbied the government “quite persistently”, in an attempt to gain the firm’s admittance to the Covid Corporate Financing Facility last spring. Its proposals were ultimately rejected.
Yesterday, Cameron told members of the Treasury Select Committee there had been nothing inappropriate in his contacts with key people at the department, but he admitted that his position as a former prime minister “makes a diffierence”.
“Clearly these civil servants were not intimidated by getting a call from me or from looking at this proposal and dealing with Greensill in the fintech sector,” Cameron said of his interaction with Scholar and Treasury second perm sec Charles Roxburgh.
He said evidence the two officials had given to the Public Accounts Committee demonstrated they felt his contact "was appropriate and they got on and looked at the scheme".
Cameron – who also lobbied chancellor Rishi Sunak and other ministers – said that at the time he was making the case for Greensill, he thought it was important that supply-chain finance and the fintech sector were “able to put their points” to ministers.
He said the period was a “time of crisis” and said his persistence was justified because the supply-chain finance model “wasn’t well understood” in the department.
Committee member Angela Eagle, a former Treasury minister, said she had read the 56 messages Cameron sent to Treasury people as part of his campaign, which were published earlier this week.
“They’re more like stalking than lobbying,” she said. “Looking back , aren’t you at least a little bit embarrassed about the way you behaved?”
Cameron replied: “There are lessons for me to learn.”
However, when Cameron was asked if Greensill had made mistakes, his chief example was that it had taken too long for the firm to refine its proposals to the Treasury.
The former prime minister was asked about his relationship with Treasury perm sec Scholar after committee member Harriet Baldwin observed that Cameron had signed off messages to him “love DC”. He had not used the same sign off with other officials and ministers.
Cameron said Scholar had been his No.10 “sherpa” during his time in Downing Street. “He’s an extraordinarily able civil servant,” the former PM added.
Cameron said he had only met Scholar once or twice in the four-plus years since he stood down as prime minister. “I don’t know Rishi Sunak that well,” he said. “But I think I can produce a list of friends and relatives who have ‘love DC’ on the end of their text messages.”
PMs ‘need more guidance’ on post-government jobs
More than once in the Treasury committee hearing, Cameron said he would take a different tack when lobbying government in future and limit himself to sending a single, formal letter instead.
He told MPs there was a case for establishing a new committee to advise former prime ministers on suitable post-government roles and approaches to those jobs.
Cameron said he believed the current Advisory Committee on Business Appointments worked well, but questioned whether it was specific enough for the needs of former prime ministers. Cameron’s role at Greensill was not scrutinised by Acoba because he was appointed in 2018, more than two years after he left government, so the rules the committee enforces did not apply.
“Perhaps there is a role for a sort of committee of former permanent secretaries and some people with great business experience to give advice, because there isn’t really a road map for an ex-prime minister,” he said. “Particularly for a younger one who doesn’t just want to be on the board of some big bank and make the odd speech around the world. But who wants to get stuck in and help a business grow and expand. Perhaps I would have found that beneficial.”
Civil servants need “very good justification” for second jobs
After the Treasury committee, Cameron faced a second grilling in front of members of parliament’s Public Accounts Committee, which is also probing issues raised by the Greensill affair.
Cameron told MPs he had not been aware of officials or crown representatives “double hatting jobs” during his time as prime minister and said he had been unaware that Bill Crothers had worked for Greensill while he was the government’s chief commercial officer.
“If you work in the civil service and are paid by the civil service then there really needs to be a very good justification for any commercial role,” he said.
“That’s the sort of principle; of course you’ve got people who are on the board of a charity or have some other job. But a full-time job… the principle is that would be very unusual.”
Cameron acknowledged civil service managers needed a way to deal with officials who might own a property they rented out or hold shares in a business.
He said the main issue was the need for a “transparent system” for dealing with commercial interests, but that it should not prevent “fluidity” of movement between the public and private sectors.
“What we don’t want is a sort of Berlin Wall,” he said.
PAC member Sir Bernard Jenkin noted that when Sir John Manzoni had been civil service chief executive, he had decided a commercial role with the brewing company SABMiller was “untenable” despite being told he could keep the role alongside his government job.
Cameron was asked if he had given Manzoni the green light to keep his private-sector role. The ex-PM said he did not remember doing so, but would check.