The biggest problem for a politician comes not when people merely dislike or disapprove of them. The biggest problem, as David Cameron’s lobbying scandal has confirmed, comes when the public sees through them.
His is a murky affair. After leaving office earlier than expected, Cameron scooped up a number of lucrative jobs. As well as accepting a role in a new $1 billion Chinese investment fund, he was signed up in 2018 by Greensill Capital. The finance firm was run by the Australian financier Lex Greensill, who had worked for Cameron during the time he was at No 10.
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Last year, according to the Sunday Times investigation, Cameron attempted to lobby members of the current government to give Greensill access to state-backed pandemic loans. This included texting the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, arranging a private drink with Greensill and Health Secretary Matt Hancock to discuss a new payment scheme, and contacting a number of ministers at the Treasury about Greensill’s business.
Cameron’s lobbying was a spectacular failure: Sunak and others remained unmoved by Cameron’s pleas; Greensill was denied the government-backed loans and the company ultimately collapsed. The whole sorry saga appeared to be another demonstration of the former prime minister’s negotiation skills.
It is hard not to conclude that, while the fall-out of Greensill’s collapse will no doubt affect thousands of investors, Cameron is the biggest loser. For although it seems he neglected to inform his former colleagues, Cameron held significant share options in Greensill. And he reportedly boasted to friends that he stood to gain up to $60 million from his share-options, a figure he has since disputed.
But whatever the rough number, it seems Cameron expected to become very rich off the back of his involvement with the firm. Today that investment is worthless — and the former PM has proved himself not just incompetent, but also greedy, lazy and somewhat entitled: someone used to the idea that he can somehow make money easily without having to do much more than lift a finger and dial.
Yet as so often with scandals of this type, it is what it reveals about an underlying culture that is of more importance than simply one person’s behaviour. And that picture is even uglier.
In recent days, a number of Cameron’s predecessors have been careful to come out and highlight the importance of “integrity” in public life, particularly when it comes to former prime ministers cashing in on their connections. John Major, for instance, seems to be revelling in Cameron’s downfall, publicly calling for an overhaul of the ethics rules that bind former prime ministers.
It’s not clear why we should pay the slightest attention to what John Major thinks when it comes to post-prime ministerial ethics. He may have been one of post-war Britain’s worst and weakest prime ministers, but he has still managed to spend the recent decades quietly going about the business of self-enrichment.
It is surely undeniable that this enrichment has come as a result of the office that he held. If Major had not been able to make use of contacts that he made while in Downing Street, why, for instance, would he have ever been made European Chairman of the Carlyle Group, a global investment firm? For Major, as for others, his market-value after leaving No 10 came not just from his judicious insights but from the fruitful introductions and door-openings he could offer.
It is the same with Major’s successor, Tony Blair, who blighted his own legacy after leaving office by deciding to become as rich as his high-flying circle of friends. Like Major, Blair took up numerous lucrative roles after leaving politics. From the US to the Middle East and Kazakhstan, Blair and his entourage have made considerable fortunes from his Downing Street “expertise”.
And now Cameron. The cronyism and corruption of public life are obviously worrying aspects to this sorry saga. But there are other fears which are less often noted. The concern, for instance, that those who have held high public office in our country think that they are somehow “owed” for the service they have done. This may seem like an understandable instinct. But it is also an ignoble one — for the simple reason that it suggests that public service at the highest level in the land is not an honour or a duty, but rather some sort of burden. That after holding such an onerous position there is something not only right but justified in senior politicians finally being rewarded for their sufferings.
And then there is another, deeper, fear; one which is rarely spoken about. It is the fear that when former prime ministers behave as Cameron appears to have done, it is because they know something that the rest of us do not.
The prime ministerial salary is not small, and while it is true that the heads of many companies earn more than £150,000 a year, most British families can only imagine earning that kind of money. It is the same with the lucrative book deals that Cameron, Blair and others have received once they left office. Most people could be forgiven for thinking that after receiving a nest-egg of a few million for writing your memoirs, it should be possible to sit back for a bit, stretch your legs and retire.
Of course, one of the reasons that these scandals seem to descend on our recent political leaders is that in recent decades Britain has been subjected to a spate of youngish senior politicians, thrown out of office relatively early when they still have another act left in them. Nick Clegg, for example, chose to sell out by going to enrich himself at Facebook.
But a deeper, more disconcerting problem looms over a question about why, given there are so many ex-leaders knocking about, our recently departed politicians feel the need to be so rich. After all, David Cameron comes from a particularly well-off family, while the others were certainly never going to struggle. So why do they need so much money? What exactly is it that these ex-politicians think that they are escaping from?
Certainly these are turbulent times; the global economy, ravaged by a pandemic, has never looked so vulnerable. If a financial crisis were to occur, it hardly needs saying that one way to avoid it would be to pole-vault into a stratosphere of extraordinary wealth. There, one’s standard of living isn’t so dependent on day-to-day trivialities like the survival of Britain’s high-street banks and the introduction of negative interest rates.
Obviously we ordinary voters can never know Cameron’s true motivation. But either way, the Greensill affair seems to confirm a suspicion held by many: that a disturbing number of our former political leaders are willing to destroy their reputations simply in order to escape the rest of us.