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David Cameron then and now: How the ex-PM changed his tune on lobbying

In an impassioned 2010 speech, Cameron condemned lobbying by ex-ministers. Eleven years on, he is apologising for doing just that

Seth Thévoz
12 April 2021, 3.45pm
The government is to launch an inquiry into the lobbying of ministers by ex-PM David Cameron
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Russell Hart/Alamy Live News

Last night former prime minister David Cameron broke his month-long silence on his lobbying of the UK government between 2019 and 2020 on behalf of his then-employer, scandal-hit financier Lex Greensill.

The statement is an astonishing U-turn from Cameron’s previous comments.

Cameron made headlines in February 2010, when he was on the cusp of becoming prime minister, by denouncing lobbying as “the next big scandal waiting to happen”. His speech has since been purged from the Conservative Party’s website along with decades of content, but an archived version allows us to compare what Cameron said in 2010 with his stance in 2021.

Cameron in 2010: “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.”

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In 2021, Cameron writes, “I was contracted to work for [Greensill Capital] for 25 days per year.” He explained that his responsibilities included “helping to win new business, speaking for the company at conferences and events, and helping with plans for international expansion.”

As well as sending texts to chancellor Rishi Sunak and other senior treasury figures, it emerged in yesterday’s Sunday Times that Cameron took finance boss Lex Greensill for a “private drink” with health secretary Matt Hancock in October 2019.

Cameron in 2010: “If we win the election, 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.”

It has been reported that Cameron told friends he stood to make up to $60m from his shareholdings in Greensill. He said yesterday that the share value “was nowhere near the amount speculated in the press.”

Cameron in 2010: “I believe that secret corporate lobbying, like the expenses scandal, 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. It’s an issue that... has tainted our politics for too long, an issue that exposes the far-too-cosy relationship between politics, government, business and money.”

Yesterday Cameron admitted, “There have been various charges levelled against me these past weeks, mainly that I made representations to the government on behalf of a company I worked for. I did.”

Cameron began working for Greensill two years and one month after leaving office – almost the bare minimum time period permitted

Cameron in 2010: “I believe that it is increasingly clear that lobbying in this country is getting out of control... Some MPs are approached over one hundred times a week by lobbyists. Much of the time this happens covertly.”

In 2021, Cameron acknowledges: “As a former prime minister, I accept that communications with government need to be done through only the most formal of channels, so there can be no room for misinterpretation.”

He went on to add: “Concern has been raised about the nature of my contact [with chancellor Rishi Sunak and health secretary Matt Hancock] via text message and email. I understand that concern, but context is important: at that time the government was – quite rightly – making rapid decisions about the best way to support the real economy and welcomed real time information and dialogue.”

Cameron in 2010: “This isn’t a minor issue with minor consequences. Commercial interests – not to mention government contracts – worth hundreds of billions of pounds are potentially at stake.”

In 2021, Cameron writes, “While I understand the concern about the ability of former ministers – and especially prime ministers – to access government decision makers and the sense, and reality, of ease of access and familiarity, I thought it was right for me to make representations on behalf of a company involved in financing a large number of UK firms.”

Cameron in 2010: “In this party, we believe in competition, not cronyism. We believe in market economics, not crony capitalism. So we must be the party that sorts all this out.”

The current government has been beset with allegations of “crony COVID contracts”, covering billions of bounds of work given to firms connected to ministers and the governing party.

Cameron in 2010: “We believe in social responsibility... Dealing with the lobbying issue may be painful, but it needs to happen and because we are from a new generation at ease with openness and accountability, because we believe in social responsibility not state control, we will clean things up.”

As prime minister, Cameron oversaw the introduction of a lobbying register in 2014, which drew criticism (including from within the lobbying industry) over its voluntary nature that left it filled with loopholes, and its lack of effective sanctions for “rogue” lobbyists.

In 2021, Cameron says, “In my representations to government, I was breaking no codes of conduct and no government rules. The Registrar of Consultant Lobbyists has found that my activities did not fall within the criteria that require registration.”

Cameron in 2010: “Today, the guidelines state that former ministers shouldn't lobby government for at least 12 months after leaving office. We will start by doubling that to two years.”

In 2021, Cameron writes: “I took up the position as a part-time senior adviser to Greensill Capital in August 2018.” This would have been two years and one month after Cameron left office: the bare minimum time period before an ex-minister can start lobbying, under his own legislation.

Cameron in 2010: “We don’t know who is meeting whom. We don’t know whether any favours are being exchanged. We don’t know which outside interests are wielding unhealthy influence.”

The former prime minister’s statement yesterday shed light on previously unconfirmed reports that last year he had gone on a camping trip in Saudi Arabia with Lex Greensill and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the latter believed by US intelligence agencies to have ordered the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018.

Cameron revealed yesterday: “While visiting the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in January 2020...I also – with Lex Greensill – met with a range of business and political leaders, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.” He added: “Greensill planned to open a new regional office in Riyadh as part of its international expansion and I wanted to assist in this effort.”

The U-turn in the former prime minister’s position has prompted a formal government investigation into his lobbying work, announced today. The Cameron case has highlighted how, once ex-ministers have been through the standard two-year 'cooling off' period, there are almost no restrictions on the lobbying work they can undertake. Cameron concedes, I have reflected on this at length. There are important lessons to be learnt.”

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