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The Guardian view on the Cameron inquiry: democracy versus chumocracy

Posted on Apr 14, 2021

J onathan Evans, the chair of the government’s committee on standards in public life, recently reflected on suggestions that Britain had entered a “post-Nolan” age. The reference was to the seven guiding principles of public service set out by Lord Nolan in 1995: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. There was a perception, said Mr Evans in a lecture last November, that “too many in public life, including some in our political leadership, are choosing to disregard the norms of ethics and propriety that have explicitly governed public life for the last 25 years”.

Revelations of rampant cronyism in the government’s Covid procurement procedures were the immediate context to those remarks. The forthcoming inquiry into the lobbying scandal surrounding David Cameron and his efforts on behalf of Greensill Capital is an opportunity to address some of the root causes of the malaise they identified. If public trust in politics is not to be grievously undermined, the chance must not be missed. The inquiry’s remit will cover the Australian financier Lex Greensill’s extraordinary rise to a position of influence at the heart of government, as well as Mr Cameron’s later work as an in-house lobbyist for the now bankrupt company. Regrettably, given that transparency is the salient issue here, it will take place behind closed doors, led by a corporate lawyer with links to a law firm which has opposed lobbying restrictions in the past. Labour has proposed a separate and more wide-ranging parliamentary inquiry, but is unlikely to win enough Conservatives over in a Commons vote on Wednesday.

Whatever the forum, the public deserves full disclosure from Mr Cameron over whom he spoke to in government on Greensill’s behalf, and what was said. The former prime minister should release the text messages he sent to the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, seeking emergency funding for the company. Mr Sunak and the health secretary, Matt Hancock – who met Mr Cameron and Mr Greensill for a “private drink” to discuss a proposed NHS payment scheme – also have serious questions to answer. Mr Cameron’s lobbying for an emergency loan got nowhere. But why did Greensill earlier become the only non-bank to gain access to a government-backed Covid loan scheme? And why was Mr Hancock’s 2019 meeting never logged in transparency releases? The revelation that a senior civil servant advised Greensill while still working in Whitehall, before becoming a director of the firm in 2016, is further cause for disquiet.

As this egregious affair illustrates, the revolving door between big business and government now spins at a speed which requires new and far tougher forms of oversight. More MPs and ministers are tending, like Mr Cameron, to see politics as a temporary career. Over 60 members of his government subsequently took up jobs in an industry connected to their former portfolios. The scope for an expanded “chumocracy” to make hay is obvious. Or as Mr Cameron himself put it in 2010: “We all know how it works. The lunches, the hospitality, the quiet word in your ear, the ex-ministers and ex-advisers for hire.”

Indeed. But when it comes to ensuring propriety, the public is ill-served by a complacent reliance on convention and a spirit of self-regulation. The Advisory Committee on Business Appointments – charged with vetting private sector jobs taken by ex-ministers – appears toothless and underfunded. Unlike most other western democracies, Britain’s lobbying rules do not encompass company employees. This leaves exceptionally powerful individuals – in this case, a former prime minister – free to offer their influence under the radar. Serious reform is required, including an accurate register of lobbyists and a longer “cooling-off” period before ex-ministers can take private sector jobs. The “post-Nolan” age is upon us and it needs regulating.