When David Cameron famously predicted in 2010 that lobbying was “the next big scandal waiting to happen” he cannot have imagined that he would be the one caught in the headlights when the scandal broke.
In his impassioned 2010 speech, delivered just before he became Prime Minister, he said: “We all know how it works. The lunches, the hospitality, the quiet word in your ear, the ex-ministers and ex-advisers for hire, helping big business find the right way to get its way”. That is how it sometimes works and that is what he did for Greensill Capital.
Back in 2010 he said: “I believe that secret corporate lobbying goes to the heart of why people are so fed up with politics. It arouses people’s worst fears and suspicions about how our political system works, with money buying power, power fishing for money and a cosy club at the top making decisions in their own interest”.
But he promised to deal with all that. “If we win the election” he declared “we will take a lead on this issue by making sure that ex-ministers are not allowed to use their contacts and knowledge, gained while being paid by the public to serve the public, for their own private gain” and he added: “Dealing with the lobbying issue may be painful, but it needs to happen. We will clean things up”.
They did win the election and we all know what happened. Nothing – or to be fair, the introduction in 2014 of a lobbying register that covered only consultant lobbyists, which, in 2021, allows Cameron to say, accurately, “In my representations to government I was breaking no government rules. The Registrar of Consultant Lobbyists has found that my activities did not fall within the criteria that require registration”.
What a mess – and to be fair to our industry in 2014 many of us warned then that it would be a mess. We pointed out that the vast majority of lobbying in the UK is conducted by in-house lobbyists (like David Cameron at Greensill) and that the register would only be credible if it covered all those who lobby.
Breaking a month-long silence about his lobbying work, following a barrage of negative media coverage, Cameron said he had reflected at length and there were “important lessons to be learnt”. There are – many – and here are five that I think are really important:
1. It is beyond time to level the playing field between consultants and in-house lobbyists by changing the law so that the register includes both.
2. It is essential that Ministers should now be obliged to take their responsibility for recording meetings with lobbyists seriously. So, no more delayed reporting of “introductory” or “catch-up” meetings. The public are entitled to know, in good time, who has been lobbying Ministers and what subjects were discussed.
3. The Advisory Committee on Business Appointments needs to stop being a toothless watchdog. Advisory should become obligatory, with former Prime Ministers, Ministers and officials obliged to seek and accept its rulings.
4. The Greensill scandal isn’t just about David Cameron. There is also the civil servant who combined working with the Cabinet Office with working with Greensill. The potential for a conflict of interest is obvious and the rules should be changed to ban civil servants from taking up such private sector appointments.
5. The “lessons to be learnt” are not just for Government, but also for ourselves. We need to take a critical look at our own codes of conduct to make sure that they are fit for purpose. That shouldn’t be just about having the right rules. We must also ensure that we have proper training in place to promote a genuine “culture of compliance” across our industry and that, when things do go wrong, we have a credible and independent regulatory process that can be relied on to enforce the rules without fear or favour.
As Machiavelli, Winston Churchill and many others have said, “never let a good crisis go to waste”. Let us use this scandal to take action that will finally bring transparency to the darker corners of lobbying in our country. Doing that will be in the public interest and in our own interest as lobbyists – and, as I recall, finding that sweet spot between the two is the definition of good lobbying.
by Dave McCullough, Managing Director, Riverside Communications