The lobbying stories come thick and fast now. Today alone they seem to splatter over every department. The Health Service Journal reported this morning that health secretary Matt Hancock did not disclose that a company owned by his sister and mother provided “confidential waste destruction” – of all things – under the NHS Shared Business Services.
Meanwhile, the Mail reported the latest batch of leaked messages between Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman and Boris Johnson, in which the prime minister seems to have been basically blackmailed into getting him to help with the purchase of Newcastle United. “The kingdom of Saudi Arabia has opened its doors for the UK’s investments in various sectors and initiated a mutually beneficial investment program with large amounts of funding,” the Crown Prince wrote. “The EPL’s [English Premier League] wrong conclusion will unfortunately have a negative impact on both our countries’ economic and commercial relations.”
Instead of standing up to it, Johnson seems to have inquired about what was happening and replied “brilliant” when informed that a phone call had been set up.
But at the heart of the scandal is still David Cameron, who appears to have injected the finance firm Greensill Capital into British government when he was prime minister and then gone to work for it when he wasn’t.
Earlier this week we learned that senior civil servant Bill Crothers took a job at Greensill while literally still working at the Cabinet Office. Today’s Guardian finds that David Brierwood, who was brought into government by Cameron and worked in the Cabinet Office, joined Greensill’s board while he was in Whitehall and stayed there for years.
The picture that’s emerging is of a financial firm being inserted right into the heart of government, of its roots wrapping around the civil service under prime ministerial authority.
Over the next few weeks, as the countless inquiries into lobbying get underway, we will see more stories like this. It’s fairly clear now that this is a systematic problem created by lack of effective rules and an absence of real oversight. It’s also clear that we’ll probably never get to the bottom of how much of this behaviour there is going on, given that it is conducted informally, over WhatsApp messages and drinks in the evening. The lack of oversight allows a culture which makes scrutiny impossible.
But in the midst of all that, we should reserve a special place for Cameron and spend a moment taking account of his reputation.
There is no better description of British prime ministers between 1997 and 2016 than that provided by Barack Obama after he met all three of them. Tony Blair was “sizzle and substance”, he said, Gordon Brown was “substance”, and Cameron was just “sizzle”.
He was an empty vessel from the start. He began by saying he wanted to ‘hug a hoodie’, then made Theresa May home secretary. He had a photo opportunity with huskies, then raged against all that “green crap”. He projected himself as a modern kind of Tory then reverted to the classic brutality of fiscal fetishism, pursuing an economically illiterate austerity programme which needlessly impoverished large parts of the country. And he promised to stop the Conservatives “banging on about Europe”, before… well we all know how that worked out.
When he was in office, plenty of political writers embarrassed themselves by trying to write convincingly about “Cameronism”, but there was nothing there. It was like trying to define an absence, or build a home out of jelly. There was no conviction, or ideals, or principle. There was no guiding logic to policy outside of political self-interest. Cameron wanted to govern because it was the sort of thing people like him did.
In the end that arrogance sabotaged his own career. He was carefree and confident enough to think he could promise a referendum on Europe and win it through the sheer power of his dazzling personality and then found himself blown away by the winds of history. He was destroyed by his own unearned chutzpah.
His successors have sometimes seemed worse than him. Theresa May and Boris Johnson have encouraged nationalism in a way Cameron never did. But to be fair to them, they were responding to events which they did not create. They were cynical, deceptive and grossly irresponsible, but they operated on a stage which someone else constructed. Cameron is different. He made it. He is responsible for it.
If this was all we knew about Cameron, it would be damning enough. But now, on top of that record, he has found a way of disgracing himself further. Look at the humiliating spectacle of how he behaved outside of government – sending pleading messages to ministers to help him pursue his commercial interests. The thing that gets you is: didn’t he already have enough money? This was one of the most privileged men ever to sit in Downing Street. And yet even then it wasn’t enough.
We might have imagined that, during Brexit, Cameron was sat in his shed, contemplating what he had done. No such luck. He was in fact pursuing just a bit more money, no matter the consequences to his reputation, or the respectability of British government, or basic ethical standards.
One way or another, things will change after the lobbying inquiries. Some level of reform will undoubtedly be imposed. But what will not change is our assessment of Cameron, unless it possibly degrades even further. In an age of terrible politicians, it really is very hard indeed to think of a worse one.