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There were plenty of heartfelt and eloquent tributes to Prince Philip in the recalled parliament today. From Tory grandees such as Sir Bill Cash to the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas, the Duke of Edinburgh’s passing managed to unite politicians across the political divide. Even his infamous verdict that “we have 650 [MPs] and most of them are a complete bloody waste of time” didn’t deter the outpouring of goodwill.
It was perhaps fitting that it fell to Boris Johnson to lead the speeches, given his own fondness for leavening his public duties with the odd risque gag or ten. As the prime minister listed all the qualities he most admired in the late Duke – a passion for the environment, a boyish fascination with science and technology, even a hint of rakishness – it was clear he felt the loss of a kindred spirit. When the PM said “he contrived to be at once politically incorrect and also ahead of his time”, the implicit parallel was unmistakeable.
While Johnson hasn’t exactly followed Philip’s lead in putting his wife’s needs and career before his own, his speech underlined that public service can come in many different forms. And just a couple of hours beforehand, the rapid rate at which such service can be tarnished by politicians was all too evident when the PM ordered a review of David Cameron’s Greensill lobbying of government.
It remains to be seen just how much more detail the Boardman review will unearth, but Cameron has done a pretty good job of trashing his own reputation so far. The grubby spectacle of a former prime minister repeatedly texting and phoning serving ministers on behalf of a firm of financiers will be hard to live down. Cameron’s own admission that he should have used “the most formal of channels” failed to grasp that an ex-PM really shouldn’t be lobbying anyone in government for profit.
Testing to breaking point the maxim that what often matters in Britain is not just what you know but who you know, the former premier seemed to rely on his personal pulling power in pressing the interests of Greensill on Matt Hancock, Jesse Norman, John Glen and Rishi Sunak. For the chancellor in particular, as the man in charge of the nation’s finances, the political risks of this whole row are more than obvious.
Sunak’s text message to Cameron on April 23 last year – in which he said “I have pushed the team” [of Treasury civil servants to find a possible Greensill solution] – has been pounced on by his critics. Even though the Treasury points out that Cameron’s lobbying failed because Greensill was not given a penny in government-backed loans through the Covid corporate financing facility (CCFF), it’s that phrase “pushed” that smacks of favours.
Allies of Sunak can see how it all looks but strongly deny any impropriety. I’m told the p-word stems from the chancellor being proud of the fact that he “pushes” civil servants, challenging them to interrogate policies and their own assumptions. Officials were already exploring alternative models to see if Greensill could help more small businesses, and the text to Cameron was a polite courtesy rather than a trigger for action, insiders say.
Last spring, Sunak was indeed pushing civil servants, with policies like the unprecedented furlough scheme having to be processed through ministerial direction or even legal direction in the face of officials’ understandable nervousness about the sheer cost and scale of the plans. Any change to the Covid financing structure would have needed his approval, and in the end he rejected it.
I’m told Sunak did not treat Cameron like an “old mate” precisely because they were not old mates. The pair had met just once when the new Richmond MP was elected in 2015. Although Cameron is reported to have said during the Brexit referendum ”if we’ve lost Rishi, we’ve lost the future of the party”, the two had no personal connection.
Sunak’s other defence is that he last week proactively, voluntarily released his only two texts to Cameron. I understand that for at least a fortnight there was no clear guidance from the Cabinet Office, from Freedom of Information officials, from government lawyers, on whether the chancellor could or should publish his texts. In the end, believing he had “nothing to hide”, he went ahead. In doing so, he may well have created a transparency precedent.
Which brings us back to Cameron, whose own texts the government felt it had no duty to publish. Bombarding a chancellor with texts, phone calls and emails for profit may be demeaning enough. But it’s the murkiness of his lobbying operation that makes Cameron’s own famous commitment to transparency curdle like sour milk.
Cameron made a big play in opposition and government of his phrase “sunlight is the best disinfectant”. In a delicious irony, the phrase was first coined as a metaphor by former US Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis, in a 1914 collection of anti-trust articles titled: “Other People’s Money: And How the Bankers Use It”.
Sunak isn’t out of the woods yet. Although Labour’s urgent question on Tuesday on Greensill business interruption loans may technically fall within the remit of the business department, the chancellor could be proactive once more by turning up to the Commons to make his case. In James Graham’s political play Privacy, Sunak’s Richmond constituency predecessor William Hague had a memorable catchphrase: “nothing to hide, nothing to fear”.
Given Boris Johnson’s own chaotic approach to the ministerial code (keeping Priti Patel in post, failing to replace Alex Allen as independent adviser), Sunak could emerge with credit if he can prove not just no impropriety on his part but also a commitment to open government. Notwithstanding the new Boardman “review” of the Greensill affair, just imagine if the Treasury select committee opted to investigate and hear testimony in public from each of the players?
As for Cameron, how long ago it seems since he jibed Tony Blair “he was the future once”. It was Prince Philip, the reformer who pushed for the televising of the coronation, who did his bit to “let daylight in upon magic”. Brand new laws and rules on lobbying, either under PM Johnson or PM Sunak, could perform a similar public service for our politicians.