By ALEX WICKHAM
Good Wednesday morning.
DRIVING THE DAY
CHANCING IN THE MOONLIGHT: Boris Johnson is personally concerned by yesterday’s revelation that one of Britain’s most senior civil servants moonlighted as an adviser to scandal-hit Greensill, a Downing Street insider tells Playbook, as Conservative high command turns on David Cameron-era officials over the latest lurid allegations of Whitehall sleaze. The frankly surreal news that the Cabinet Office has been letting top civil servants work for private firms on the side has disturbed the prime minister and the political side of Downing Street. But ahead of Labour’s crunch opposition day vote on a parliament-led inquiry into Greensill this afternoon, Playbook hears of splits within government over how the scandal is playing out and growing fears across Westminster of more skeletons about to come out.
The bombshell: Yesterday’s shock news — dropped by Eric Pickles, now boss of the famously toothless Whitehall revolving door watchdog, the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA) — was that Bill Crothers, one of the country’s top civil servants during the Cameron years, took a second job at the now collapsed Greensill while he was still working in the Cabinet Office. Crothers was the government’s chief commercial officer between 2012 and November 2015. In September 2015, he joined Greensill as an adviser to its board, while he was still employed as a civil servant. In August 2016, after leaving the civil service, he became a director at Greensill. That’s not so much a revolving door as an open hallway.
Bill Somebody: The Sunday Times’ Gabriel Pogrund explains that “arguably no one was more important” than Crothers in engineering access for Greensill boss Lex Greensill to commercial directors of Whitehall departments. “Crothers helped Greensill get his pharmacy scheme in Whitehall and later lobbied for NHS payroll scheme, which was also rolled out.” Pogrund says Crothers hasn’t responded to any of his requests for comment over the past month. On the front page of the Times, Steve Swinford and Henry Zeffman say Crothers held a stake in Greensill worth £5 million, so stood to benefit from its success.
Chisholm in a Pickle: ACOBA boss Pickles — who suddenly fancies himself as Westminster’s answer to AC-12 — smells a rat. He has written to Cabinet Office Permanent Secretary Alex Chisholm demanding to know why they think it’s appropriate to allow senior civil servants to work second jobs advising private firms. A furious Pickles clearly reckons Crothers’ failure to declare his full-time job with Greensill with ACOBA because he was already working for it part-time stinks. He also wants to know how many other civil servants have been moonlighting for outside companies. You can see why Pickles is on the rampage: anyone reading Chisholm’s farcical attempt to downplay the story would think he is on very shaky ground.
This is the line … in Crothers’ correspondence published yesterday that is said to have astonished the PM and his senior political aides: ‘This advisory role was not seen as contentious, and I believe not uncommon.” In response, No. 10 immediately ordered the Boardman Review to expand its remit to investigate Crothers’ double-jobbing and the Cabinet Office’s decision to apparently allow such extraordinary arrangements elsewhere.
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Manzoni overboard: Chisholm’s predecessor as Cabinet Office perm sec, John Manzoni, is one name in the frame this morning. The Guardian’s Jessica Elgot, Kalyeena Makortoff and Rajeev Syal quote sources saying it was Manzoni who approved Crothers’ arrangement with Greensill. A Whitehall official last night pointed out to Playbook that Manzoni himself worked for outside companies while he was a senior civil servant, coming under fire in 2014 when he tried to keep a £100,000-a-year second job at drinks firm SABMiller after being appointed chief executive of the civil service. Good to know those in charge of running the entire civil service feel they have enough time on their hands for six-figure out-of-hours gigs in the private sector.
Bonfire of the moonlighting mandarins: If you’re in any doubt as to how the No. 10-Whitehall war has blown up, here is the view of a senior minister who spoke to Playbook last night: “It is appropriate to investigate whether senior civil servants, who are public servants and whose loyalties should lie with the public only, permitted themselves to take liberties with the rules for personal gain. It is also reasonable to ask how ministers at the time allowed the appearance of impropriety to arise.” The minister also suggested the impeccable reputation of the late Cabinet Secretary Jeremy Heywood may not last, that other current and former senior civil servants could face difficult questions in the days ahead, and speculated that other companies separate to Greensill may also have enjoyed remarkable access to Whitehall in the Cameron years.
As Pogrund puts it: “It’s easy to make this about Tory ministers — but it’s about so much more, including the degradation of the civil service. Heywood imposed Greensill on Whitehall and Crothers gave him a guided tour of departments.”
What’s next? Several Whitehall veterans Playbook has spoken to this week raised further questions about potential lobbying scandals to come. One recurring theme is the alleged non-declaration of meetings with lobbyists and private companies by ministers and senior civil servants, which is apparently commonplace as the declarations are policed with the lightest of touches by the Cabinet Office. Second is the suggestion that Lex Greensill could have been able to meet ministers and officials on many, many occasions without them having to put it on the books because he was a “senior adviser to the prime minister” under Cameron.
Yikes: Then there’s the claim by one Whitehall official that the texts between Cameron and Chancellor Rishi Sunak are “the thin end of the wedge,” and that informal efforts to lobby ministers and officials take place over text, WhatsApp (and in non-corona times over dinner) on a daily basis, with no transparency, declarations or accountability over whether their efforts had any success.
What’s the Tory strategy? You might think senior Tories are trying to focus attention on largely former civil servants in an attempt to get themselves off the hook. Possibly, but that’s not how some Tory MPs see it. One told Playbook yesterday they couldn’t fathom Johnson’s decision to call an inquiry into Cameron’s lobbying and take the story to the next level: “It would have fizzled out in days, and instead we are shouting from the rooftops about Tory sleaze and cronyism. Insanity.” They said they suspected it was down to Johnson’s personal rivalry with the former PM. Others argued it was an attempt by Johnson to get on the front foot and finally be the prime minister who cleans up lobbying — something Cameron claimed he would do, only to do the exact opposite.
Sleaze unease: Playbook hears there are also rising concerns in Cabinet over how things have escalated. Sunak may have initially sought to clear his name by releasing Cameron’s cringe texts and making clear his lobbying efforts weren’t up to much, but his failure to turn up to the Commons urgent question yesterday and continuing questions over Greensill’s access to Treasury officials still have the potential to cause problems. Health Secretary Matt Hancock is also implicated, after yesterday’s revelations that he declared a meeting with Cameron that touched on government business, but that for some reason it wasn’t published in transparency logs. For the Boardman Review to have any credibility, it would surely have to harshly scrutinize what’s been going on at the Treasury and the department of health, as well as just the Cabinet Office.
Doo, doo, doo, doo … right: Senior ministers are also genuinely apoplectic at Cameron for putting them in this position. One Whitehall official tells Playbook: “His name is now mud in the Tory Party. To have such little regard for former colleagues that he’d risk their careers for a payday says it all about the man.”
How today works: All eyes on the Commons action kicking off at midday with Prime Minister’s Questions, followed by Labour’s opposition day motion seeking to establish a select committee-run inquiry into Greensill. Keir Starmer’s party says it wants all those caught up in the scandal — including Cameron, Sunak and Hancock — to come before parliament to give evidence … for a select committee to establish how and why Lex Greensill was given such huge access to the heart of government … and for the government to publish all Greensill-related communications between Cameron, Sunak, Hancock, Johnson and any SpAds. Labour’s Shadow Cabinet Office Minister Rachel Reeves says yesterday’s revelations were “extraordinary and shocking” — she’s on the morning broadcast round.
But not on the Beeb … Playbook hears Labour offered up Reeves to the BBC this morning, but they refused to take her on grounds of balance. Which is a curious one given the Beeb has also recently taken flak for letting the PM spout off about London Mayor Sadiq Khan during his corona press conferences.
Why it matters: This is a binding vote, so if the Tories don’t vote it down, then a cross-party select committee with the authority to call those named above would be established. If they do vote it down, Labour will pile up doubts over the integrity of the Boardman Review and once again accuse Sunak and co. of avoiding scrutiny.
What’s Labour’s strategy? Lobbying scandals, much like expenses scandals, run the risk of infecting the whole political class — and Playbook hears there are some in Labour who are more than a little concerned by the party going so hard on lobbying when so many of its senior figures are themselves former lobbyists. One Labour wag pointed out the irony of Starmer taking a moral high ground on lobbying while also discussing strategy with Dark Lord/Global Counsel Chairman Peter Mandelson.
Rearguard action: The government had assumed Labour would pull its opposition day debate following the death of Prince Philip, and so far has kept to the eight-day national mourning cessation of hostilities — until now. Expect Tory MPs to line up today with attacks on Labour for opposing the 2014 Lobbying Act and their own links to lobbyists for unsavory clients. It might just be that the Greensill scandal is a watershed moment that unites Westminster and brings about changes to the lobbying industry that have been blatantly needed for years. Or perhaps more likely, it’ll descend into score-settling and partisan attack lines that drag half of Westminster down into the cesspit.