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“Make no mistake, this is a painful day, coming back to a place that I love and respect so much, albeit virtually, but in these circumstances.” David Cameron’s very first words to the Treasury select committee neatly previewed everything else that was to come: self-preservation masquerading as atonement, special pleading with a hint of humblebrag, all wrapped up in smoothly worded obfuscation.
The former PM wasn’t “back” anywhere, other than his own back room, but in his mind’s eye he was back in parliament. Somehow the phrase “remote working” seemed very apt, given how distant he seemed from the details of the collapsed finance firm Greensill, and from the lives of the many who suffered in the first wave of the Covid pandemic.
For it was during the height of the pandemic that Cameron devoted his energies not to helping the government tackle the virus, but to relentlessly lobbying ministers and Treasury officials on behalf of his company. As the deaths soared into their thousands last April, he made 19 calls, texts and emails in a single day: to the Chancellor, Economic Secretary, a No 10 spad, the Deputy Governor of Bank of England, Michael Gove and Treasury perm sec Tom Scholar.
Overall there were 56 different contacts. That’s a lot of words about him and his company. And there were lots more words about both during his two sessions before MPs on Thursday. First we had a flannel-packed 144 minutes with the Treasury committee, then a further 77 minutes of verbal blancmange before the Public Accounts Committee.
Cameron started his working life as the director of corporate affairs for a long-dead TV company. So the wheel had come full circle and here he was appearing as a PR man for a long-defunct premier called David Cameron. The problem was that he proceeded to further tarnish his own reputation almost as much as Greensill had itself. Lacking any brutally honest self-assessment of his own, he left it to MPs to describe him as “a con artist” and “stalker” who “demeaned” his former office.
In line with plenty of corporate media experts who prep witnesses for parliament, he knew that he had to have a form of early apology. “I am extremely sorry and sad that it has come to this end,” he said. But he felt the need to still defend Brand Cameron. When he said that because Greensill had collapsed “doesn’t mean the whole thing was necessarily a giant fraud”, it felt like a plea for his own political tenure.
Pressed repeatedly on exactly how much he was paid by Greensill, Cameron was coy. He refused to say if his salary was higher or lower than £1m a year (a refusal that suggests it was higher), saying only it was a “generous, big salary that you might earn as someone in my position at a bank or what have you.”
Yet he was at pains to suggest how little this was, saying if he’d worked at “a large bank, as some of my predecessors have done, perhaps it would have been even more”. There was even a hint of a complaint that he was not well paid in No.10, saying his Greensill income was “far more than what I earned as prime minister” (itself a pitiful £142,000 a year).
Of course the reason MPs wanted to know how much he got paid was precisely to discover just how motivated he was by a cash incentive when he lobbied government. In an attempt at apparent candour that hid more than it revealed, he admitted he had “a serious economic interest” but then said his actual salary and shares weren’t “particularly germane” because his real motivation was public service.
And that was perhaps the spin too far. “I have spent most of my adult life in public service. I believe in it deeply. I would never put forward something that I didn’t believe was absolutely in the interests of the public good,” he said. It was this attempt to argue that his desperate lobbying was all some kind of pro-bono charity work for the taxpayer that most seemed to rile MPs as an insult to their intelligence.
When he excused his embarrassing texts as being done “in the heat of responding to a crisis”, the crisis felt like Greensill’s desire for business rather than the need to get urgent help to struggling small firms. The now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t obfuscation was endless.
One minute he said the Greensill plan “would have been good for those businesses, but also good for us and I wouldn’t hide that for a second”. The next he said: “The motivation was about trying to help the government and get those schemes right.” Famously dubbed a “chameleon” politician, was karma catching up with him?
The attempts to portray himself as a saviour of small business, rather than his own business, kept on coming. At one point he even painted Greensill as NHS angels, saying a plan to enable staff to draw down their salary as they earned it (rather than having to wait to the end of the month) was an alternative to “the evils of payday lending”. The fact that some NHS staff are paid so little they would need cash advances seemed lost on him.
There were other awkward moments too, with his memory suddenly going hazy when asked about the German impact of Greensill, or the use of a private jet to get him to his third family home in Cornwall. He claimed he ended all texts with “love DC” yet strangely only his text to the top Treasury official had that sign-off. Most suspicious of all was he claim that his message about “rate cuts” was him being “a victim of spellcheck”. It was not about interest rate cuts (a very serious issue if he’d been told in advance) but VAT cuts. Honest.
On and on it went, the cake-and-eat-it exceptionalism. He said “prime ministers should only ever use letter or email” in future, but this particular ex-prime minister was allowed to text and phone because of the “exceptional” circumstances of last year. He didn’t want to merely “be on the board of some big bank and make the odd speech around the world”, he wanted “to get stuck in and help a business grow and expand”. That sounded like an admission that, yes, his own commercial interest really was what drove him.
What may irk Cameron’s critics most of all was just how similar his defence was on Greensill to his defence of his fateful decision to call a Brexit referendum. He has said a referendum was somehow “inevitable”, though most people believe it was an attempt at Tory party management that backfired spectacularly due to his sheer complacency (he even bragged to EU leaders privately in a summit he would walk it).
A similar disingenuousness seemed to run through all his claims that he really was lobbying ministers on Greensill out of some kind of altruism, rather than a personal profit motive. Maybe, like many former PMs, he suffers from self-delusion. When asked how schoolchildren would remember his premiership, he said it was as someone who “has made our country a better place”.
Still, having trashed his own reputation so royally, which company will now dare risk him trashing theirs in future? It may well be that Cameron has to stick to charitable and other good works (he has done impressive work in dementia) from now on. Being seen as a gifter not a grifter is always a better look for a former premier. At least, that’s what a really good PR man would advise.