Source: Financial Times

As more spending flows through regional bodies, Westminster needs to strengthen scrutiny. Instead, the message from the top is: to the victor, the spoils

 BL PREMIUM01 APRIL 2021 – 09:39 HENRY MANCEDavid Cameron. Picture: BLOOMBERG

What went through David Cameron’s head? Was it just a giant dollar sign, or did the former prime minister think lobbying was his remaining calling in life?

Cameron’s work for disgraced banker Lex Greensill tarnishes a legacy already darkened by misjudgments over Brexit and austerity. We thought he was hiding in a shed in Oxfordshire. In fact, in early 2020, he was camping with Greensill and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia. Then he was texting chancellor Rishi Sunak to ask for Greensill’s now collapsed financial group to get more coronavirus support.

Former prime ministers earn enough for speeches to banks; they should not have to speak for them too. Perhaps, in Cameron’s case, an absolute lack of power corrupts absolutely.

For Britain, this is a wake-up call. Our politicians often seem deluded, but they have generally avoided an appearance of corruption or venality. This is not France, where two of the last three former presidents have been convicted of corruption.

Cameron’s lobbying for Greensill proved unsuccessful, with Sunak leaving the matter to unsympathetic officials. The system can probably handle a few unwise moves by has-been politicians, so long as successors act with probity. The problem is that, on regular occasion, serving ministers are not. Instead, they are creating a new tolerance of sleaze at Westminster.

A few cases stand out. Months before the 2019 election, Boris Johnson created a £3.6bn fund for deprived towns. Ministers were given wide discretion over which towns should be invited to apply. Communities secretary Robert Jenrick chose several marginal Tory seats, which did not qualify on statistical deprivation measures. Officials waved through the selection.

In December 2019, Johnson himself went on a Caribbean holiday. He claimed that a Tory donor called David Ross paid for it; Ross denied that. We still don’t know who paid. We do know that Johnson would like private donors to fund a refurbishment of Downing Street. The notion that he would not feel indebted to them is implausible.

In 2020, Johnson gave a peerage to Peter Cruddas, a Tory donor who the Lords appointments commission advised against because of a cash-for-access sting. The prime minister overrode the commission. He also overrode his ethics adviser, who concluded home secretary Priti Patel bullied officials and broke the ministerial code.

Meanwhile, we await the truth about Jennifer Arcuri, who this week said she had a four-year affair with Johnson. Arcuri’s business received public money from London’s mayoralty when he was mayor.

This new era of sleaze is built upon Johnson’s personality, the winner-takes-all politics of Brexit, the denigration of the civil service, and the emergency of coronavirus, which distracts from malfeasance. A laxness that starts from misleading parliament soon flows to serious ethical breaches. It is especially alarming when so much public money is being channelled to businesses.

But sleaze is not just a Conservative problem: Labour’s Joe Anderson, while Liverpool mayor, was arrested on suspicion of bribery and witness intimidation. Labour’s former first minister in Wales, Carwyn Jones, ignored official advice he should not accept a role with the parent company of Greensill-linked steelmaker Liberty Steel.

As more spending flows through regional bodies, Westminster needs to strengthen scrutiny. Instead, the message from the top is: to the victor, the spoils. Recall how ministers’ contacts enjoyed a VIP lane early in the pandemic’s procurement process.

No single safeguard can prevent wrongdoing. Rules on lobbyists didn’t apply to Cameron, because he was in-house at Greensill. Constitutional conventions can be flouted. The media’s judgments are not binding. The Good Law Project, a legal group, is threatening to sue over the government’s levelling-up fund, which, like the towns fund, seems to allocate money on partisan criteria. But the law is a blunt mechanism.

The answer is more leadership and less leeway. An independent official, not the prime minister, should be able to initiate and adjudicate on alleged breaches of the ministerial code. (The government has supported a move in that direction in Northern Ireland.)

The Lords appointments commission should also be able to veto peerage nominations. The chamber, stained by patronage, needs to be rethought altogether. Plans to give ministers more control over the appointment of public servants should be dropped. There is no sanction for politicians and officials taking up inappropriate business jobs after they leave office; there should be.

Stricter rules would have a ripple effect on political culture. They would embolden officials and ministers to act honourably when the media and regulators aren’t watching. The lesson of the 2009 expenses scandal is that, when rule-dodging sets in, it becomes pervasive. MPs’ expenses are now tightly controlled and published by an independent body. It’s barely an issue.

Politicians like Johnson and Jenrick may judge that the odds of getting away with sleaze are high. But are they high enough? I wonder what Cameron thinks about that. In future, few people will ask what he thinks about anything, because sadly he has shredded his reputation. He should be a cautionary tale.

© The Financial Times 2021