Boris Johnson’s government has defended lobbying rules amid growing disquiet over links politicians and civil servants have enjoyed with private companies. But environment secretary George Eustice said ministers would consider tweaks to the system after a series of parliamentary inquiries have reported.
A number of committees at Westminster are looking into former prime minister David Cameron’s lobbying of ministers and officials on behalf of collapsed finance firm Greensill Capital.
Mr Eustice said Mr Cameron’s lobbying of chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak to give the company a role in a coronavirus recovery programme was acceptable.
“It is acceptable because people have worked within the rules. But I think the point I would make is ministers as they leave office, including prime ministers, aren’t allowed to take any such paid roles for a period of two years. These are rules that David Cameron himself brought in. You know, he left office some five years ago,” he told the BBC.
“He himself has conceded that he probably, with hindsight, should have written in a more formal way in a letter through the private office. But the real question here is what did the Chancellor do when he was contacted?
“Well, he flagged the conversation with his officials, he asked them to look at it. The answer came back that, no, nothing could be done, the company didn’t fit the criteria. The company was told we’re not going to help you, and it went bust. So on the face of it nothing really changed.”
Mr Johnson is expected to announce on Monday a successor to Alex Allan, his independent adviser on ministerial standards who resigned last November after the prime minister ignored his advice that home secretary Priti Patel had breached the ministerial code.
Westminster committees are looking into the role of civil servants as well as politicians after it emerged that a senior cabinet office official was working for Greensill while he was still in the civil service. All current cabinet ministers will have to disclose any contact they had with Greensill as part of a review into what happened.
“Once it’s concluded, and once all those parliamentary committees that are now looking at this have concluded, I’m sure some of them will make policy recommendations. And of course the government will look at that. I’m not saying that things couldn’t be tweaked or improved,” Mr Eustice said.
Labour’s shadow cabinet office minister Rachel Reeves said the committee that advises former ministers and officials on outside employment needed more powers. She described the Greensill scandal as the tip of the iceberg, accusing the Conservatives of eroding public trust in politics.
“There’s £2 billion of contracts that have gone to friends and donors of the Conservative Party, this whole growing feeling that there’s one rule for those at the top and another for everybody else that we need to root out of our politics,” she said.
“Standards have fallen so far in the last 11 years under this Conservative government. Tory sleaze is back. It is bigger than ever and we are seeing the erosion of trust in our politics because of the behaviour by a few at the top of the Conservative Party.”