Greensill lobbying leaves your reputation in tatters, Cameron told

MPs grill former prime minister for four hours about his text message and WhatsApp campaign

David Cameron was on Thursday told that his persistent lobbying of ministers, begging for favours on behalf of the controversial bank he worked for, had “demeaned” the position of the prime minister and left his “reputation in tatters”.

The former PM was forced to deny that his text message and WhatsApp lobbying campaign on behalf of Greensill Capital was driven by fears that an “opportunity to make a large amount of money was at risk”.

Cameron, who joined Greensill as an adviser and lobbyist exactly two years after he left No 10, repeatedly refused to tell MPs how much money he stood to make from the bank before it collapsed last year.

He told MPs he was paid “a generous amount, far more than I earned as prime minister” but declined to give even a ballpark figure, claiming his pay was “a private matter”.

Cameron, 54, also refused to state how many shares he had been granted in the bank. He dismissed as “completely absurd” reports that he had boasted to friends that he stood to make £60m from a successful flotation of the supply chain financing firm.

During four hours of intense questioning, by two committees of MPs, Cameron repeatedly refused to apologise for his personal behaviour in launching, what Mel Stride, Conservative chair of the Treasury select committee, described as a “barrage” of lobbying messages.

Earlier this week it was revealed that Cameron made contact with ministers and officials 56 times via text, WhatsApp, emails and phone in support of Greensill.

Angela Eagle asked if he was not “a little bit embarrassed” about the number of messages he sent, which she said was “more like stalking than lobbying”.

Referring to the bank’s collapse, Cameron said he was very sorry for all the Greensill employees who had lost their jobs and said it had been “very depressing” that the company he believed could help millions of people had failed.

It was also revealed during the hearing that Cameron:

  • Used Greensill’s private jet for a number of flights to Newquay airport in Cornwall to visit his “third” holiday home nearby. He said he did not have a “complete record” of how many trips he had taken.

  • Often signs off his text messages “Love Dc”. He said it was not an indication that he had a particularly close relationship to the top civil servant he texted. “Anyone I know even at all well, I tend to sign off text messages with ‘love DC’”, he said.

  • He blamed a spelling checker for a text message that appeared to show he thought a cut to interest rates at the beginning of the pandemic was a strange move. The former PM said he was baffled by the message and had likely been “the victim of failure to spellcheck”, and had meant to refer to a VAT cut.

  • Claimed that the late civil service chief Sir Jeremy Heywood had brought Lex Greensill into the heart of government, and that he met the financier only twice when they were both working in No 10.

  • Described Sir Tom Scholar, the permanent secretary at the Treasury, and to whom he sent the “Love Dc” text, as his personal “sherpa”.

Stride told Cameron that “many people would conclude at the time of your lobbying, your opportunity to make a large amount of money was at risk”.

Cameron denied that he was motivated by money and claimed that he was instead trying to help the economy recover from the pandemic.

He said it was important for the country to know he had large “economic interest, absolutely” in Greensill succeeding, but insisted that his lobbying was not “affected by the amount”. When pressed further, he added: “In anyone’s terms it was a generous salary.”

In an unprecedented move underlining Cameron’s fall from grace, he was brought before both the Treasury select committee and the public accounts committee on one day. The failure of Greensill has jeopardised 5,000 UK steelmaking jobs, as the bank was key lender to Liberty Steel.

Rushanara Ali, Labour MP for Bethnal Green and Bow and a member of the Treasury committee, told Cameron that his persistent lobbying of ministers had drawn the country and the position of prime minister into “disrepute”.

She added: “Your reputation is now in tatters, Mr Cameron … it feels like you’re not taking responsibility for what’s happened.”

She described Lex Greensill, the Australian founder and chief executive of the bank, as a “con artist”.

“At best” Greensill had used him, Ali said, “and at worst, frankly, exploiting your reputation and bringing the office of the former prime minister into disrepute, and you kind of went along with it”.

She added: “You should have been much more careful about due diligence, and you turned a blind eye to things that were blindingly obvious.”

Cameron, who served as prime minister between 2010 and 2016, replied: “Well, obviously, I take a different view.”

Ali told him that the country was “hugely disappointed” in him and “this whole episode is deeply disappointing for our country and our democracy”.

“You should have known better. You were the future once.” This was a reference to Cameron’s first appearance at Prime Minister’s Questions, when – as opposition leader in 2005 – he quipped to Tony Blair, then prime minister, that Blair “was the future once”.

She said Cameron would come out the other side of the Greensill crisis as “Teflon man and a great survivor”, while taxpayers would be left picking up a bill of more than £1bn from the collapse of the bank.

Siobhain McDonagh, a Labour member of the Treasury committee, asked if Cameron felt he had “demeaned” himself “by WhatsApping your way around Whitehall, on the back of a fraudulent enterprise, based on selling bonds of high-risk debt to unsuspecting investors?”

McDonagh confronted Cameron with hiswarning when he was prime minister that lobbying was the “next big scandal waiting to happen”.

“We all know how it works. The lunches, the hospitality, the quiet word in your ear, the ex-ministers and ex-advisers for hire, helping big business find the right way to get its way,” she said, quoting Cameron’s words as PM back to him. “Do you recognise those words?”

Cameron insisted that his “persistent contact” with MPs had been appropriate. He said he had been motivated to send so many messages because he thought Greensill could help the government cope with the “economic heart attack” threatening the country.

“It was a time of extraordinary crisis and so it was a time when I think it was appropriate to use phone and text over email and letter,” he told the Treasury committee.

“I think, in future, one of the lessons I take away is prime ministers should only ever use letter or email and should restrict themselves far more.”

Cameron said being brought back to parliament to answer the MPs’ hours of questions had been “a painful day, coming back to a place that I love and respect so much, albeit virtually, but in these circumstances”.


Rupert Neate

The GuardianTramp

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