A former civil servant has said Boris Johnson’s government appears to believe it doesn't have to “abide by the rules” amid claims a lobbying scandal involving David Cameron could engulf the Tories.
Ministers and senior officials have been dragged into a row over the former prime minister’s lobbying for collapsed financial firm Greensill Capital and its links with the government.
Recent revelations show Cameron exchanged text messages with chancellor Rishi Sunak as part of an attempt to win access to an emergency coronavirus loan scheme for the company.
Cameron is also said to have organised for health secretary Matt Hancock to attend a “private drink” with the firm's founder Lex Greensill to discuss a new payment scheme for the NHS.
Jill Rutter, senior research fellow at UK in a Changing Europe, who worked as private secretary to the chief secretary of the Treasury under John Major, was asked whether the current administration was a “sleazy government” in light of the revelations.
She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think it is tracking up a record that might come back to haunt it.
“Last summer I was writing stuff about [communities secretary] Robert Jenrick – remember that thing with the Westferry development, the planning decisions and some of the other decisions he has made?
“I think this is a government that doesn’t think it has to abide by the rules and that gets you into a whole bunch of trouble.
“At the moment it doesn’t seem to be paying a high price, but who knows?”
Watch: Labour accuses Tories of return to 'sleaze of the 1990s'
Labour brought a motion on Wednesday to create an “anti-sleaze” committee to investigate lobbying, including Cameron’s activities, that would have been able to summon witnesses to answer questions in public.
The party says the independent inquiry already set up by Johnson to investigate the issue just isn't tough enough.
However, the Labour motion failed, with 262 votes for and 357 against.
Shadow Cabinet Office minister Rachel Reeves said before the vote: “This is much wider than just about what David Cameron has done – this is about what is happening at the heart of government today.
“This really matters, we need answers.”
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer also launched a bitter attack on Boris Johnson at Prime Minister's Questions earlier on Wednesday, telling him there was “sleaze” in the government.
In scathing comments, Starmer said: “I know the prime minister is launching an inquiry, that inquiry isn’t even looking at the lobbying rules.
“I’m not sure it’s looking at very much at all because every day there’s further evidence of the sleaze that’s now at the heart of this Conservative government.”
Starmer added: “Does the prime minister accept there’s a revolving door, indeed an open door, between his Conservative government and paid lobbyists?”
Johnson responded: “This is a government and a party that has been consistently tough on lobbying and indeed we introduced legislation saying that there should be no taxpayer-funded lobbying, that quangos should not be used to get involved with lobbying.”
Starmer said an “overhaul of the whole broken system” is needed and pressed Johnson to back Labour’s motion for a parliamentary inquiry into the “scandal”.
Labour called for the more wide-ranging inquiry after it emerged that a former head of Whitehall procurement became an adviser to Greensill while still working as a civil servant, in a move approved by the Cabinet Office.
Bill Crothers began working for the firm as a part-time adviser to the board in September 2015 but did not leave his role as government chief commercial officer until November that year.
Rutter said the revelation suggested the rules were not working well, and that Crothers seemed to have exploited a “loophole” that was an “obvious place for tightening up”, in that he did not need Cabinet Office approval to take a job with Greensill as he had already been doing work for them while in the civil service.
A Cabinet Office spokesman said Johnson's “wide-ranging” independent review into the financial firm, announced on Monday, will consider the situation of Crothers.
Crothers said his role at Greensill while still a civil servant was approved by a conflicts of interest policy and “supported by the Cabinet Office leadership”.
Meanwhile, Cameron admitted in a statement at the weekend that he should have communicated with the government “through only the most formal of channels”.
There is no suggestion Cameron, Crothers, Greensill or senior ministers broke any rules.
But Reeves told the Commons on Wednesday: “Having refused to respond to any questions at all for 40 days, David Cameron chose a period of national grief, hoping there would be less political criticism and less scrutiny. It is cynical and it is shabby.”
Reeves also described Cameron’s statement as “toe-curling”, adding: “He’s not sorry for his conduct, for the texts and the drinks, but he is sorry he got caught, and he’s sorry that his shares are now worthless.”
Responding, Cabinet Office minister Chloe Smith said the government is “not complacent” on lobbying.
Smith also said that “the information that has emerged in recent weeks about Greensill Capital has done so in some part because the system in place is doing its job and ensuring the support of transparency and accountability".
Greensill Capital, which entered administration in March, was the biggest backer for Liberty Steel, a firm that employs thousands of workers around the UK and now faces an uncertain future.
Watch: David Cameron breaks silence on lobbying row to accept 'lessons to be learnt'