Labour has accused David Cameron of blocking rule changes that could have stopped the former prime minister from personally lobbying Whitehall officials on behalf of collapsed lender Greensill Capital without publicly declaring his interests.
The opposition party put forward amendments to the Lobbying Act in 2014 that would have increased transparency and scrutiny of in-house lobbying, which is when companies deploy their own staff to influence government officials, rather than outsourcing those efforts to third-parties like consultants.
UK rules only require third parties to log their efforts in the public register, while in-house lobbyists do not have to. Labour’s amendment, which would have required both groups to register, was ultimately defeated 218 votes to 185, after Cameron – who was still prime minister – ordered Conservative peers to vote against the changes in January 2014, Labour said.
Labour says the changes would have ultimately made it harder for Cameron – who was subsequently an employee and shareholder in Greensill – to open doors for the lender across Westminster without officially registering his interests. Cameron reportedly told friends he was in line for a $60m windfall if Greensill successfully listed on the stock market, according to the Times.
Greensill collapsed into administration earlier this month, leaving key borrowers including the UK’s third largest steel manufacturer Liberty Steel in a cash crunch.
“It is shocking that a former Conservative prime minister not only boasted about how much money he would make from Greensill Capital, but also gave them an open door to government, starting with profiting off our NHS and ending with steelworkers’ jobs at risk,” shadow chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, Rachel Reeves, said.
“Voting down the very measures that could have stopped Cameron’s poor and hypocritical conduct in the first place is disgraceful,” Reeves added. “It’s the latest example of how Conservative cronyism has weakened our economy, costing jobs and taxpayer money.”
The failed amendment meant there was no official record of Cameron’s attempts to persuade officials to give Greensill special access to hundreds of thousands of pounds of emergency Covid loans at the start of the pandemic. Cameron is said to have contacted the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, on his private phone as part of his efforts.
Granting Greensill access to the 100% government-backed Covid corporate financing facility (CCFF) would have meant bending the rules, since lenders like Greensill are not meant to borrow money through the programme.
The registrar in charge of enforcing lobbying laws launched a shorted-lived investigation into Cameron’s lobbying efforts on Tuesday last week. He was cleared of any potential wrongdoing by Friday.
The industry body which represents professional lobbyists said the ruling proved that lobbying rules needed to be tightened. “It was inevitable that the registrar would reach this conclusion as unfortunately the legislation fails to cover the vast majority of those engaged in lobbying activities,” the chair of the PRCA’s public affairs board, Liam Herbert, said.
He said existing legislation fails to provide a “level playing field on transparent and ethical lobbying” by excluding all in-house lobbyist and some third parties like lawyers and management consultants.
“There could surely be no more compelling proof that the Lobbying Act needs urgent revision than the fact that former prime ministers who become lobbyists are exempt from its provisions,” Herbert added.
A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “Since 2010, we have significantly increased transparency on the workings of government – from extensive transparency publications on meetings with external organisations, to a statutory register of consultant lobbyists.
“The government will be going further to review and improve business appointment rules, to ensure we maintain the highest standards in public life.”