Call me naively cynical, but when reports of David Cameron’s lobbying larks emerged, I gave a little shrug. ‘Ex-politician uses contacts to make money’ sounds like a description of our political culture rather than a hard-hitting news headline. Perhaps it is a little grubbier when a former prime minister is caught lining his pockets — but only because those pockets are supposed to have been cut by a higher class of tailor.
Cameron used his heaving address book to press ministers on behalf of Greensill Capital, a company involved in the game of contractual jiggery pokery called ‘supply chain finance’ (which sounds suspiciously like corporate rent seeking). But he was fobbed off. And so surely the story ends? Greensill goes under, ministers and taxpayers’ noses are kept relatively clean, and Cameron’s already considerable cheeks are stuffed with yet more gold.
Yes, he demeaned himself. Sipping tea in a Saudi autocrat’s tent is certainly unpleasant. Particularly when the royal in question is widely believed to have ordered the dismemberment of a journalist. Cameron, as an aside, has used the well-worn formula to try to deflect criticism: while scrounging for petro-dollars on behalf of his new master Lex Greensill — the Aussie farm boy done good, now accused of being not so good — the former statesman ‘raised concerns about human rights’. Pull the other one Dave. It’s all rather distasteful.
But what is Cameron guilty of that hasn’t been done hundreds of times before? Of course, that doesn’t make it right. Cameron deserves to be hoisted up by his laces for the central sin of trying to sway ministers, if only to scare other Westminster has-beens into protecting their diminutive reputations. Philip Hammond went one step further, advising the Saudis themselves. (This does at least give rise to the delightful possibility of Phil and Dave thrashing out some multi-billion dollar deal in an airless glass block in Riyadh.)
The other danger is the collateral damage Cameron’s act of self-immolation might leave behind. With their attempts to push the attack line of Tory corruption, Labour wants you to think there’s something fishy about Greensill’s dealings with Cameron’s Downing Street. True, he had a desk in No. 10 and a pocket full of government business cards. But the late cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood seemed to think 34-year-old Lex was some kind of backroom whizz kid, able to use those jiggery pokery skills to get stuff done in Whitehall. Perhaps it was opportunistic, but there’s nothing wrong with a bit of opportunism on behalf of the UK taxpayer.
Again, maybe this should all trigger a fit of rage. It certainly warrants a good deal more scrutiny. But, in principle, roping in brains from the private sector is surely a good thing. Just look at Kate Bingham. There is little logic in restricting the corridors of Whitehall to graduates whose diversity stretches from those who started working for an MP versus those who began their careers in the civil service fast stream. Even if Greensill did get up to no good in No. 10 — and there’s little evidence that he did — the idea of bringing in outside talent isn’t any less persuasive.
Ultimately, the worst thing about the Greensill scandal is just how unscandalous it feels. Everyone’s playing the game: the opposition cawing ‘cronyism’, hacks hunting a scalp, Johnson calling an inquiry that everyone can see is just a chance to tickle his former rival. According to the BBC, the inquiry is not designed to ‘start a conversation about the rights and wrongs of lobbying, let alone to propose a new system’. So really the only intention is to give Cameron a good kicking? Forgive my cynicism, but what's the point?
Yes, uncovering shady dealings is the right thing to do. But going through the motions of a slightly bloodless, rickety game of gotcha and counter-gotcha doesn't benefit anyone. Where’s the principle? Maybe that’s all the lauded notion of checks and balances has ever been. Or maybe Cameron’s parting political gift is showing us just how cynical we’ve all become.