Tuesday, September 28News That Matters

Current lobbying rules are ‘pretty good’ and Cameron didn’t do anything wrong – minister

David Cameron did not do anything wrong when lobbying for Greensill Capital and “meticulously observed the rules”, the environment secretary has told Sky News.

George Eustice also said current rules on lobbying are “pretty good”.

But Labour’s shadow communities secretary, Steve Reed, claimed “Tory sleaze is well and truly back”, adding that the Greensill revelations are “really quite shocking”.

And in a warning that the Conservative government could be damaged by the scandal, Tory grandee Sir Bernard Jenkin, who chairs the Commons Liaison Committee, said gains made in so-called “red wall” seats during the last election could be lost because of what he called the “shameful” lobbying controversy.

Asked on Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday about David Cameron’s conduct, Mr Eustice said: “Has he done anything wrong? Well, on the face of it, no. There’s a review that is going on, we mustn’t prejudge that.”

Mr Eustice added: “I don’t think he took advantage of any rules, no. He meticulously observed the rules that he himself actually put in place after some concerns around lobbying a decade ago. He put in place these restrictions on what ministers can do for a period of two years.”

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The environment secretary did concede, however, that Mr Cameron might have taken a different approach.

“He himself has said that with hindsight it probably would have been better if, rather than texting ministers, he had instead written letters to set out his views more formally,” Mr Eustice said.

“He himself has conceded that if he had his time again, he wouldn’t have texted Rishi Sunak and wouldn’t have texted others – he would instead have written through formal channels.”

Regarding rules on lobbying, Mr Eustice said: “Fundamentally, I think the systems we have in place with ministers declaring interests with the ministerial code and the focus on that and how ministers conduct themselves in office is actually a pretty good one.

“But that is not to say you couldn’t make tweaks or changes, and also there will be a time and a place for that after these reviews have concluded.”

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Tory sleaze is ‘well and truly back’, says Labour MP

In recent weeks it has emerged that Mr Cameron, who was employed by Greensill Capital’s owner Lex Greensill in 2018 after he left Downing Street, approached serving ministers about the involvement of the finance firm in government-backed financial support schemes during the coronavirus crisis.

Mr Eustice was also asked about Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s interest in a family company that has contracts with the NHS.

In March, Mr Hancock declared in the MPs’ register of interests that he owns more than 15% of shares in Topwood Limited, a firm which specialises in secure storage, shredding and scanning of documents.

Mr Eustice said: “The reason we know about this is because Matt Hancock did what all ministers do in this case, which is to declare that interest.

“And so he did the right thing, he declared that – he had no role whatsoever in any procurement around that business, so yes there is nothing wrong with ministers having financial interests, providing they declare them in the appropriate way.”

Asked whether lobbying rules were “broken” if they allowed ministers to hold financial interests in companies making money from their government department’s contracts, the minister replied: “I’m not sure I would agree with that.

“Ministers can move around a lot – famously we tend not to spend too long in one particular role.”

Writing for The Observer, Sir Bernard Jenkin said the lobbying controversy should “matter” to Boris Johnson.

Sir Bernard wrote: “He does not need to pretend to be a saint, but his ‘red wall’ voters, who gave him his majority, will start to dismiss him unless he can show he is more open, more transparent and very different from the out-of-touch elite he defeated in the 2016 referendum and ousted from government.”

He added: “This crisis presents an opportunity for a reset in politics and Whitehall, which could begin to restore public confidence.”

Boris Johnson has promised that a top lawyer will be given “carte blanche to ask anybody whatever he needs” as part of a review into the activities of Greensill Capital.

Concerns remain after first proper interrogation of a minister over the scandal
Analysis by Rob Powell, political correspondent

After a period of radio silence during national mourning for Prince Philip, George Eustice’s interview is the first proper interrogation we’ve had of a government minister about the lobbying scandal.

While “nothing to see here” is perhaps an unfair summation of the environment secretary’s response, the reality is not far off.

Mr Eustice largely defended David Cameron, strongly defended Matt Hancock and said lobbying rules were “pretty good” but maybe needed “tweaks”.

He also suggested those “tweaks” would be a matter for politicians and said the Boardman Review into the affair would not make recommendations.

That may cause concern among those who want more independent involvement in the policing of lobbying and ministerial interests.

One senior Tory has warned this weekend that failure to act could harm the party in newly-won ‘red wall’ seats.

A more muscular approach to business and private enterprise will have its costs as well, though.

Ultimately, balancing these risks will determine what reforms – if any – come to pass.