15 April 2021

The Tories must now distance themselves from contaminated Cameron

By Chris Whitehouse

As a much younger man, I once told David Cameron to get stuffed. He was working for Carlton TV at the time, and asked me to withdraw and apologise for an unflattering, off-the-record briefing I had caused to appear in Broadcast magazine. He was most polite, and I was a trifle brusque, never suspecting that he would go on to serve in the highest political office in the land. I have followed his career with interest ever since.

That interest has now turned to incredulity at his mishandling of both his own lobbying career and its scandalous fallout, which now threatens the reputation of this Conservative government.

Did he learn nothing from the Leveson Inquiry and the exposure of his private texts to, among others, Rebekah Brooks, then of News International? What was he thinking when he decided to line his own pockets through Greensill share options so huge that they have been described as “dynasty-founding”? Why did he ignore the basic tenets of lobbying legislation which he had personally introduced?

His prediction 11 years ago that lobbying would be “the next big scandal waiting to happen” now sounds more like a promise. He seems to have forgotten one of the fundamental rules public life: if you don’t want the world to read about it on the front page of the Sunday newspapers, then don’t do it!

Boris Johnson is right to have set up an inquiry into this mess and set a tight deadline for its report. It’s certainly not in the Conservatives’ interests to allow this matter to rumble on. The outcome of the inquiry will doubtless be that Cameron didn’t break his own rules, but hopefully it will also conclude that if his behaviour was lawful (if not perhaps dignified, prudent or appropriate for the former holder of high public office) then perhaps the law ought to be tightened.

The loophole Cameron exploited was simple: the business that employed him was not covered by lobbying legislation because it did not meet a threshold for turnover. Indeed, the Registrar of Consultant Lobbyists, no less, has already vindicated Cameron’s behaviour saying:

“Based on detailed information and assurances provided, Mr Cameron’s activities do not fall within the criteria that require registration on the Register of Consultant Lobbyists.” 

But, hang on. Cameron stood, according to some reports, to make $60million personally from the deal if he was able to swing it – which is more than my own lobbying company has turned over in the nearly 40 years we’ve been around.

Under the existing legislation, it’s one rule for dilettantes with snouts in the trough, sailing under the flag of convenience of employment by a rich investor, and another rule for those of us working darned hard in the trenches over many years.

Lobbying itself, whilst often wrongly associated with the sleazy behaviour of politicians, is a vital part of a healthy democracy. It is no more than active citizens, charities, campaign groups, trades unions and, yes, businesses, seeking to engage with the policy and law-making institutions of society to explain their wants, their needs and their usually laudable objectives.

What we do as political consultants is to de-mystify the policy-making process so that our clients can engaged with the right policy-makers, in the right way at the right time, so ensuring that better decisions are made.

At Whitehouse, for example, we are currently championing the cause of the protestors in Hong Kong, those who provide solutions to children with continence problems, to the providers of medical devices, to nursery school children who benefit from free school milk, and to those who protect consumer rights. These are all laudable and worthy aims, as are the interests of many of those represented by our competitors.

What we need is a statutory register in which we can declare all our clients, and for that requirement to disclose to be extended to all those who are lobbying for reward.

That would be a good start in tackling the overriding sense of entitlement that seems to permeate the corridors of power. It’s a perception that could do grave damage to the Conservatives’ reputation if Johnson isn’t seen to draw a line under the Greensill saga and clearly distance his own brand from Cameron’s contaminated one.

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Chris Whitehouse leads the public affairs agency, The Whitehouse Consultancy.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.