Chancellor Rishi Sunak is facing mounting pressure over his private phone calls with David Cameron about the scandal-hit finance company Greensill Capital, amid claims that their discussions may have breached the ministerial code.
Questions over the extent of Cameron’s lobbying of serving ministers ballooned last week, with seven inquiries now announced into various aspects of the new lobbying scandal. Two senior Treasury officials will be asked this week why Greensill was granted a series of meetings with the department, as it repeatedly tried and failed to gain access to an emergency Covid loans scheme.
Sunak has already disclosed two text messages he sent to Cameron in response to the former prime minister’s attempts to convince him to include Greensill Capital in the Covid corporate financing facility (CCFF). Cameron was acting as a paid adviser to Greensill. One text shows Sunak saying he had “pushed the team” to see if it would be possible.
However, there was also at least one phone call between the men, the contents of which have not been disclosed. The Treasury has also declined to say whether officials listened in on the call. The ministerial code states that “a private secretary or official should be present for all discussions relating to government business”.
Labour has now written to Darren Tierney, director general of propriety and ethics in the Cabinet Office, pointing out that the phone calls could represent a breach of the code. The party also suggests that the chancellor’s admission that he “pushed the team” breached the code’s guidance that ministers must ensure “no conflict arises, or appears to arise, between their public duties and private interests”.
The chancellor’s team is confident that he has not breached the code, because at the point Sunak found himself discussing official government business, he passed it on to officials. Discussion did take place personally with Lex Greensill, the company’s founder, but always with officials rather than the chancellor himself. Ultimately, the requests from Greensill were turned down. A spokesperson for the chancellor said: “The chancellor has acted in line with the ministerial code.”
The questions left for Sunak are a sign of the problems Cameron has caused serving ministers as a result of his lobbying on behalf of the collapsed and scandal-hit Greensill Capital. The former prime minister finally released a statement on his involvement with Greensill last weekend, stating he had not broken any rules, but that his approaches to government should have been through “the most formal of channels”.
Cameron has not yet released his texts to the chancellor, though some allies believe he should consider doing so before he is pressured into it by an inquiry or through freedom of information laws. Cameron also contacted Treasury ministers John Glen and Jesse Norman by telephone over Greensill.
The row over the ministerial code comes at a time when Boris Johnson has no one to advise him on whether the code has been breached or not. His last adviser, Alex Allan, resigned after Johnson refused to sack Priti Patel. Allan’s formal investigation had concluded that the home secretary had bullied civil servants. Government sources told the Observer that a new adviser has been identified and could be unveiled as soon as this week. The post has been unfilled since November last year.
Bridget Phillipson, the shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, said that the row had shown “Conservative sleaze is back”. She said: “The chancellor was right to say that everyone should follow the rules no matter who they are. That’s why he has to urgently explain his role in the Greensill affair and set out if he has breached the ministerial code.
“We know the chancellor ‘pushed’ his officials to explore ways to lend hundreds of millions of pounds to an unregulated lending firm through one of his Covid loan schemes. Then the door was simply opened for them to lend through another one.”
Early March: Greensill Capital seeks insolvency protection in Australia. It later files for administration.
19 March: Reports begin to emerge that David Cameron lobbied government officials and ministers for Greensill Capital.
21 March: There are revelations that Cameron sent several texts to Rishi Sunak in April 2020, trying to gain access for Greensill Capital to a government-backed emergency loan scheme.
28 March: Full details emerge of Lex Greensill’s Whitehall access as a government adviser while Cameron was prime minister. Installed in 2011, he was given a tour of Whitehall touting his supply chain finance model.
30 March: A business card emerges suggesting that Lex Greensill had a role at the heart of Downing Street during the coalition government years.
8 April: The Treasury releases messages sent by Sunak to Cameron and says the former prime minister also contacted junior ministers. The messages reveal Sunak telling Cameron that he had “pushed the team” to find a way for Greensill to gain access to emergency Covid loans.
11 April: Further details emerge that Cameron lobbied a No 10 official on behalf of Greensill. It is also revealed that Cameron took Greensill to a “private drink” with health secretary Matt Hancock, where they lobbied in favour of an early salary payment scheme run by Greensill’s firm.
11 April: After weeks of silence, Cameron releases a statement defending his actions, but acknowledging that he should have approached the government in a more formal way.
12 April: Downing Street launches an inquiry into Cameron’s lobbying for Greensill to be led by the lawyer Nigel Boardman.
13 April: It emerges that Bill Crothers, former head of procurement for the government, was given permission to keep the job alongside becoming an adviser to Greensill in September 2015.
14 April: It is reported that Boris Johnson ordered an aide to look into a potential Saudi takeover of Newcastle United after he was lobbied by the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. A series of other inquiries are launched into various elements of the affair and lobbying. By the end of the week, seven inquiries are planned.
15 April: It emerges that Hancock has shares in a family firm that has done business with the NHS in Wales. Hancock’s team said he was not involved in the awarding of contracts.