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Opinion

Cameron broke no rules lobbying for Greensill – because he wrote them

Cameron is in hot water over lobbying, but the rules he wrote while in power mean it won’t get too troubling, writes Tamasin Cave.

It took him a month, but David Cameron has finally admitted it. He is a lobbyist. “There have been various charges levelled against me these past weeks,” he said in a statement on Sunday, “mainly that I made representations to the government on behalf of a company I worked for. I did.”

In fact, he badgered senior government figures and former colleagues for access to a government loan scheme on behalf of a firm, Greensill, that was about to go bust and in which he had a significant financial stake.

But, as he also correctly points out, no rules were broken.

And that is because, as Prime Minister, Cameron blocked attempts to introduce rules governing lobbying, rules that would directly apply to the kind of activities he has been engaged in.

Cameron resisted calls to clamp down on lobbying. Instead, what his government did in 2015 was introduce a sham register of lobbyists.

For years I lobbied Cameron’s government to introduce regulations for lobbyists, as part of a campaign to shine a light on the UK’s £2bn influence industry. Our central ask was for a compulsory lobbying register, such as exist in countries around the world, that would make public who was bending the ear of government. It would require paid lobbyists to declare who they are, which interests they represent, whom they are lobbying and what they are seeking to influence. Ideally, it would also force lobbyists to reveal see how much they are spending on influencing government, which can run to millions of pounds.

Effectively, a register opens the curtains a chink on government decision-making. It allows a bit of light into the room, so that the public can see who is discussing what, the favours being exchanged and deals done. It’s a small step towards greater accountability.

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Needless to say, the professional persuaders in the industry fiercely opposed the idea: lobbying is best done, is most effective when no one is watching. But the real block came from No.10.

Years after making his 2010 speech in which Cameron decried “secret corporate lobbying” as something that “has tainted our politics for too long”, we were told by one official that it was never going to happen. There was no political will in Downing Street to shine a light on lobbying.

The only thing that would motivate Cameron’s government to act, we were informed, was scandal. Despite there being many of these during his time as Prime Minister – involving ministers, MPs, Lords, the Tories’ election guru, its party treasurer and others – still, Cameron resisted calls to clamp down on lobbying.

Instead, what his government did in 2015 was introduce a sham register of lobbyists. It covers only a tiny fraction of the thousands of lobbyists operating in the UK and then demands that they reveal nothing meaningful about their interactions with government. It was a disingenuous waste of time and an exercise in box ticking, as one MP at the time put it.

Cameron, in other words, pretended to regulate lobbying. The lack of rules was by design.

His refusal to act has now come back to bite him. If we had proper regulations, Cameron would, by law, have been required to make public his lobbying for Greensill Capital. Perhaps it would have caused him to pause before accepting the gig. And while it would have certainly generated headlines, the fallout is likely to have been far less. Part of the stink surrounding lobbying comes from its secrecy.

What seems obvious – even as Cameron now finds himself is in the spotlight – is the political calculation by governments that it is better to weather the storm of these scandals than to open up their everyday, backroom dealings with commercial lobbyists to scrutiny. Far better, they figure, to have a few bad apples than to show the rot. Transparency regulations would reveal too much: the private healthcare companies lobbying for control of the NHS, the polluters defending against action on climate change, the Tory-linked interests seeing the pandemic as an opportunity to cash in.

Don’t expect the recently-announced and limited inquiry into today’s scandal to shine much of a light on that.

Tamasin Cave, co-author of A Quiet Word: lobbying, crony capitalism and broken politics in Britain.

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