The regulator’s decision to clear David Cameron of having broken the rules around lobbying – ‘on a technicality’, as one newspaper put it – will doubtless have come as a great relief to the man himself.
But his actions could still cast a long shadow over the Government’s efforts to shake-up the Civil Service and introduce fresh thinking into Whitehall (assuming that this agenda has survived the departure of its architect, Dominic Cummings).
For whilst the narrow issue examined by the Registrar of Consultant Lobbyists was his personally contacting ministers to try and drum up financial support for Greensill Capital, the much bigger one – explored at length in the Sunday Times – is the manner in which Lex Greensill was given such extraordinary access to policy-making.
Bringing in an outside expert to advise on policy isn’t unusual. What is remarkable is that Greensill was brought in, and allocated a team of civil servants, without anybody clarifying what his formal role actually was or who he was accountable too.
Worse, it seems he was actually ‘advising’ – it might be better to say ‘advocating for’ – policies from which he stood to gain financially if adopted. Specifically, he wanted to introduce private ‘supply chain finance’ to public sector supply chains. This is a solution to late payments that sees a bank pay the value of invoices up front, for a fee, and then accept repayment once the actual client has paid.
When the Government decided to adopt his scheme for paying pharmacists, the contract was initially won by CitiBank (which Greensill had left weeks before) before being taken over by… Greensill Capital, which went on to provide £1.2 billion in loans. Greensill himself ranged across other departments, including the Ministry of Defence, trying to drum up more business. If the Sunday Times is right, this was all without being able to demonstrate that this ‘solution’ was actually needed.
But we should perhaps be a little cautious to take that at face value. The paper’s reporting seems to draw heavily on Civil Service sources, and it isn’t difficult to imagine that some of these might not be disinterested assessors of private-sector intrusions into their remit. Nor to imagine that the Greensill saga, combined with Cummings’ exit, might see a fresh effort to dissuade ministers from putting their faith in ‘weirdos and misfits’.
That would be a mistake. The Civil Service is for obvious structural reasons largely immune to the pressures that drive innovation in commerce and industry. Schumpeter’s gale scarcely stirs the still air of Whitehall, and even the boldest attempt to simulate it (the dissolution of DfID) has apparently largely seen hold International Development hands stage a reverse-takeover of the Foreign Office.
Ministers need to be able to draw on outside thinking to support them when they need to take on institutional attitudes. Which makes it very important that when they do, they do it properly.