Treasury officials “behaved with complete and absolute integrity” in the face of aggressive lobbying from David Cameron over Greensill Capital – but should have discouraged him from using informal lines of communication like texts to ministers, a committee of MPs have said.
After a three-month deep dive into the Greensill scandal – which sought to learn lessons after the finance firm gained what has been described as “unusual” access to government – the Treasury Committee has concluded the department is “missing an opportunity for reflection” by refusing to acknowledge the boosted influence Cameron had as a lobbyist.
It said the ex-PM had shown a “significant lack of judgement” in using less-formal channels – including a massive wave of texts and calls to cabinet ministers and top officials – to lobby government to include Greensill Capital in a lending scheme to support businesses at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.
Cameron’s lobbying was unsuccessful and the Treasury prevented Greensill from joining the Covid Corporate Financing Facility – which the MPs said was the right decision.
The MPs said that when Cameron first contacted the Treasury, it was right for officials to consider Greensill’s proposals to be included in the CCFF “given the considerable need to provide support to businesses at the start of the pandemic”.
But the decision not to amend the rules of the CCFF or allow Greensill to participate “does not necessarily mean that the Treasury handled this situation perfectly”, their report warned.
“Dealing with the lobbying of Greensill, and Mr Cameron, required government resources and such lobbying would always run the danger that he would be perceived to be detrimental to the appearance of propriety at the Treasury,” it said.
The report stressed that the MPs were sceptical of officials’ “firm conviction” that Cameron’s connections and status as former prime minister “had no meaningful effect on how Greensill’s application for access to the Covid Corporate Financing Facility was dealt with, including the time spent on it by those at a senior level”.
“We are very surprised about this, given that Mr Cameron was an ex-prime minister, who had worked with those he was lobbying, had access to their mobile phone numbers, and appears to have been able to negotiate who should attend meetings,” the report said.
“The Treasury’s unwillingness to accept that it could have made any better choices at all in how it engaged in this case is a missed opportunity for reflection.”
The MPs said both Treasury officials and ministers had “behaved with complete and absolute integrity in their handling of Mr Cameron’s lobbying”.
But they said officials should have directed Cameron to more formal channels of communication when he first approached ministers and civil servants on behalf of the supply-chain finance firm.
The MPs said they had “not seen evidence of a time or process when and by which the potential risks of [Cameron’s personal connections to the people he was lobbying] were considered by the Treasury, and potential mitigations put in place”.
“The Treasury should have encouraged Mr Cameron at the initial stage of his lobbying into more formal methods of communication, and there should have been a discussion as to whether Mr Cameron’s ongoing contact posed any reputational risks to the Treasury, and whether, as a consequence, mitigation was required.”
The report called on the department to put more formal processes in place to deal with lobbying attempts by ex-ministers or prime ministers in the future. The Treasury should make this process public, it said.
“We would expect any such processes to be consistent with any reforms which might be introduced as a result of the lobbying undertaken on behalf of Greensill,” it added.
The report also said the Greensill scandal showed there is a “strong case” for strengthening the rules on lobbying for former ministers.
While Cameron did not break the lobbying rules, “that reflects on the insufficient strength of the rules, and there is a strong case for strengthening them”, it said.
The Treasury Committee’s remit does not extend to lobbying policy, nor did the inquiry on lessons from the Greensill affair. However, the MPs noted that the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee is conducting a separate inquiry into propriety of governance in light of the scandal.
Commenting on the report, Treasury Committee chair Mel Stride said: “The Treasury should have encouraged David Cameron into more formal lines of communication as soon as it had identified his personal financial incentives. However, the Treasury took the right decision to reject the objectives of his lobbying, and the committee found that Treasury ministers and officials behaved with complete and absolute integrity.”
He said the MPs were looking forward to the conclusions of other ongoing inquiries on the collapse of Greensill Capital, and would continue to follow developments closely.