LONDON – The controversy over former British Prime Minister David Cameron’s lobbying on behalf of a now-bankrupt financial services firm deepened Monday as the government launched an investigation that opponents immediately labeled a “cover-up.”
The Conservative government announced plans for an independent inquiry into Greensill Capital after Cameron made his first comments on the scandal and two senior politicians called for new rules on contacts between business representatives and government officials.
Over the past month, a series of news reports revealed that Cameron lobbied government officials, including Treasury chief Rishi Sunak and Health Secretary Matt Hancock, on behalf of Greensill, which collapsed last month, threatening thousands of jobs at a British steelmaker that it helped finance.
Gordon Brown, U.K. prime minister from 2007 to 2010, on Monday called for a five-year ban on lobbying by former ministers. But Bernard Jenkin, a lawmaker who led an inquiry into links between government and business, said the only way to combat this long-running problem is to require serving ministers and civil servants to report inappropriate conduct by lobbyists.
“It’s been a culture in Whitehall that’s been building up for a long time,” Jenkin told the BBC, using a British term for central government. “This very informal way of conducting relationships about very important matters and the distribution of public money — well, I don’t think the public thinks that’s acceptable.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s spokesman said the Cabinet Office has commissioned an independent review into Greensill and its work on “supply-chain finance,” a technique the government sought to use to expedite payments to contractors, including pharmacies supplying the National Health Service. The review will be led by attorney Nigel Boardman and will look at the way contracts were secured and “how business representatives engaged with government,” Max Blain said.
Johnson is the leader of the Conservative Party, the same party Cameron represented when he led the nation.
Rachel Reeves, the opposition Labour Party’s spokeswoman on treasury issues, said the investigation was an attempt to sidestep the controversy until the public forgets about it, just as the government did with earlier allegations of bullying by a cabinet minister. She called on Cameron, Sunak and Hancock to appear before Parliament as soon as possible.
“This has all the hallmarks of another cover-up by the Conservatives,” Reeves said.
British media began digging into Cameron’s work for Greensill after the company’s collapse forced the owner of Liberty Steel, which employs about 5,000 people, to seek a government bailout. Greensill was one of the company’s key financial backers.
The developments came after Cameron made his first comments on Greensill late Sunday, when he released an 1,800-word statement on his involvement with the firm.
News reports showed that Cameron sent text messages to Sunak in an effort to secure government-backed loans for Greensill under a program to help companies hurt by the COVID-19 pandemic. He also lobbied Hancock on behalf of a Greensill product that would have allowed NHS workers to receive advance payments on their salaries.
Cameron, who was employed as a part-time adviser to Greensill, said his work on behalf of the company didn’t break any rules or codes of conduct on the activities of former ministers.
“However, I have reflected on this at length,” Cameron said. “There are important lessons to be learnt. As a former prime minister, I accept that communications with government need to be done through only the most formal of channels, so there can be no room for misinterpretation.”
Cameron was prime minister from May 2010 to July 2016, resigning after he led the failed campaign for Britain to remain in the European Union. Lex Greensill, a banker who later founded Greensill Capital, began working as a government adviser in 2011.
Cameron said he started working for Greensill in August 2018, and that he received shares in the company as part of his compensation. He rejected press reports that he expected the shares to be worth $60 million when Greensill went public.
“Their value was nowhere near the amount speculated in the press,” he said.
Brown said the government must act quickly in response to the Greensill affair because it has the potential to bring public service into “disrepute,” just like the parliamentary expenses scandal of 2008. At that time, several members of Parliament were found to have improperly inflated their expenses, leading to new rules governing their conduct.
“For me, there are principles about public service,” Brown told the BBC. “It cannot ever become a platform for private gain. Ministers must never be lobbying — former ministers, prime ministers — must never be lobbying for commercial purposes.”
Associated Press Writer Jill Lawless contributed.