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 prime minister 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 Number 10, repeatedly refused to tell MPs how much money he stood to make from Greensill before the bank 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 that his pay was “a private matter”.
Cameron, 56, 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.
The former prime minister also admitted that he had used the Greensill private jet to travel to his holiday home in Cornwall on a number of occasions, and he blamed a spelling mistake for a text message to Sir Tom Scolar, permanent secretary at the Treasury, in which he appeared to ask why the Bank of England had cut interest rates as the coronavirus crisis hit the financial markets and the economy. The text said: “Never quite understood how rate cuts help a pandemic.”
Cameron told MPs: “I’ve been rather baffled by this text message because obviously rate cuts are a very appropriate thing to do at a time of difficulty. I think I’m a victim of spellcheck here – I think it was about a VAT cut … I think I was responding to something that was in the news.”
Mel Stride, the Conservative chair of the Treasury select committee, 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 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 said 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 two parliamentary select committees on Thursday to face more than four hours of intense questioning over his role in the collapse of Greensill. The failure of the lender 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 select committee, told Cameron that his persistent lobbying of ministers had drawn the country and the position of prime minister into “disrepute”.
She said Lex Greensill, the founder and chief executive of the bank, was 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 played along, and 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.”
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 MP on the Treasury committee, asked whether Cameron felt he had “demeaned yourself and your position by WhatsApping your way around Whitehall, on the back of a fraudulent enterprise, based on selling bonds of high risk debt to unsuspecting investors?”