Over the Greensill: Why the right-wing press will bust a gut to exonerate Cameron

... Boris Johnson may want to put the boot in but he also craves a pile of cash for himself when he’s done. And he's already done his own dodgy deals.

Matthew Parris dedicated one of his most recent columns to making excuses for the British Empire, so it’s hardly surprising that he finds space in his latest to defend diddy David Cameron, ruddy-faced ‘not’ lobbyist and former occupant of the comfiest sofas in Downing Street.

Parris is a pal of the former Prime Minister. Shrugging at the expanding Greensill scandal, he writes:

Ihope the fact that I think of David Cameron as a friend doesn’t disqualify me from a word in his defence. You may find his kind of lobbying inappropriate. I do. But make no mistake: this kind of thing is absolutely routine, has been for decades and involves Labour as well as Conservative former cabinet ministers.

It’s the ‘everybody does it’ defence, which can’t be used by shoplifters failing to scan small items as the self-service checkouts but is somehow entirely accepted when used to dismiss large-scale corruption. “Sure, look, who hasn’t had some suspicious money resting in their account from time to time?”

Parris continues with this ‘corruption is just how the wheels get greased’ line of argument, becoming ever less convincing:

Equally routine is the standard response of most serving ministers, which will be courteous, helpful-sounding and non-committal, often undertaking to get officials to have a look and see if anything can be done. Usually, it can’t. Frequently, both sides suspected this from the start. But the lobbyist has done his job and his employers can’t complain. Most often, the real suckers are the employers.

What Parris fails to mention is that Cameron was not registered as a lobbyist under the rules his own government brought in. Instead, he was an employee on the books at Greensill, a move that seems to have been designed by poacher Cameron to get around the structures gamekeeper Cameron put in place.

Having burned out the ‘everybody’s at it’ angle, Parris finishes his slight and slightly desperate defence of Dave by attempting to shift focus:

The current fuss is best understood as an opportunity Boris Johnson has not missed to kick an old rival in the shins, and in which the present Labour leader has, equally opportunistically and perhaps incautiously, joined. It would be unjust for this inquiry to limit itself to Cameron.

Dismissing a case where it seems that Cameron gave Greensill free reign to run around government departments while he was still in power in return for a cushy payout once he was a private citizen as “fuss” is classic establishment.

'“You bourgeois types are shocked by this kind of thing but I, a former MP and jaded columnist, know it is just how things work, old chap. It’s how the wheels (and palms) get greased. And it’s not corruption if you went to Eton; it’s smart networking! Don’t you think Boris will do the same?”

Yes, columnist I just conjured up to say things I needed to get to the next part of the newsletter, I do think Boris Johnson will do the same. And, in fact, worse since he has been far from reticent about taking donations from ‘interesting’ sources while still sat in Number 10.

Just look at Johnson’s tennis coaching side hustle. One of his tennis prodigies is Lubov Chernukhin, a Russian-born donor to the Conservative Party, whose husband Vladimir is a former deputy economics minister in Putin’s government and received more than £6 million from a Russian billionaire — Suleiman Kerimov — who is subject to international sanctions.

Since 2012, Chernukhin has given the Conservative Party £1.7 million and in February 2020 she paid £45,000 at a charity auction for the chance to play tennis again with Boris Johnson. When the Prime Minister was still Mayor of London, Chernukhin slapped down £165,000 to take on him and David Cameron in a doubles match where they definitely, definitely, definitely only talked about serves and not ways to serve themselves.

Of course, Chernukhin’s donations are legal. She’s now a British citizen. But the Russia Report — sat on by Boris Johnson until after the 2019 election and finally published in July 2020 — concluded that Britain has become “a favourable destination for Russian oligarchs and their money” and said it was “notable that a number of members of the House of Lords have business interests linked to Russia, or work directly for major Russian companies linked to the Russian state.”

But Boris Johnson’s government has no need to import its corruption. It’s backing Britain by producing industrial amounts of cronyism and grift right here at home. There are Matt Hancock and the case of the huge PPE contracts for his local pub landlord, Robert Jenrick and his delightful dinner with Richard Desmond which cost Tower Hamlets millions in much-needed income, and, of course, Johnson himself and those ‘technology lessons’ from Jennifer Acuri, which involved the Prime Minister’s own disgusting ‘dongle’.

Those are just three examples but you could fill a book with them. The Johnson administration is rotten and revels in it. With a massive majority, a supine press, and an opposition led by a man so ‘forensic’ he struggles to discern arse from elbow, the Prime Minister knows he can and will get away with it over and over again. His entire career, in both journalism and politics, is a testament to his ability to get caught and face no consequences.

And it’s not just papers like The Times that find excuses for him or minimise the extent of the rot. After writing a long piece littered with examples of the obvious and cancerous corruption in British public life, Rafael Behr of The Guardian softens his argument at the very end, concluding:

British politics is not riddled with corruption. But it is decadent in many ways, rotten in places, and has been this way for so long that we hardly react to the smell.

It’s a sentence that contradicts itself and that screams of Behr’s own desire to ensure he’ll still be able to sidle into a think-tank or an advisory job sometime. It doesn’t do any columnist much good to be too frank about the establishment — they never know when they might need a job or be sat next to them at dinner.

While the Financial Times (and the TrashFuture podcast) have been on the Greensill story for months, other papers like The Times and Sunday Times have only come to the story in the past couple of weeks. Why? Because a huge part of our economy is balanced on implausible bullshit like Lex Greensill’s supply chain finance ‘magic’ and it doesn’t do to dig around in it too much if you’re one of the people who benefit from it.

Similarly, the so-called independent inquiry into the scandal has been made deliberately wide-ranging by Boris Johnson to ensure that it produces lots of noise but very few firm findings. While reporters will delight in the psychodrama of Johnson being able to put the boot in to his old Eton and Oxford rival, there is no chance that Cameron will be seriously criticised when a report finally dribbles out from the investigation.

In a truly classic moment of the Johnsonian era, the inquiry into David Cameron playing fast and loose with the lobbying laws is being led by Nigel Boardman, a corporate lawyer and non-executive board member of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, whose firm challenged the Cameron administration when it proposed a strengthening of… the lobbying laws.

Just as US Presidents don’t pursue their predecessors over crimes in office and, in fact, tend to pardon them, UK Prime Ministers are never going to do anything that makes getting that cash money harder once they’re out of office. British politics is underpinned by patronage, nepotism, and delayed corruption where favours in office are paid for in jobs, speeches, and stock later.

Cameron — a distant cousin of the Queen — benefitted from a leg up from the start. There’s a notorious story, badly sourced but often told, that on the morning of his first job interview with Conservative Central Office in June 1988, it received a telephone call from an unnamed man at Buckingham Palace. The caller allegedly said:

I understand you are to see David Cameron. I’ve tried everything I can to dissuade him from wasting his time on politics but I have failed. I am ringing to tell you that you are about to meet a truly remarkable young man.

While his time in office made it abundantly clear that as Prime Minister, he was a long way from remarkable, and despite Boris Johnson’s temptation to take a good swing at his old frenemy, Cameron will be fine.

The inquiry’s conclusions are already decided and I suspect that Sir Jeremy Heywood, the deceased former Cabinet Secretary and ex-colleague of Lex Greensil, will get lumbered with most of the blame.

The press will smack Cameron about for a bit longer but he’ll soon be back receiving puff piece interviews and invitations to contribute columns.

Tony Blair took the UK into an illegal war and he’s asked for his opinion on every possible occasion. Alastair Campbell ran a spin operation that at least contributed to the death of Dr David Kelly and he’s managed to rebrand as a mental health champion.

Boris Johnson is so mired in filth and his friends in the press have made so many excuses for it that causing too much ‘fuss’ — to use Matthew Parris’ word — about Cameron’s cash-grabbing, office-abasing antics would be bad strategy. It’s a storm now, but it’ll be barely a light shower by the time the inquiry finally comes to the conclusions it was set up to unavoidably reach.

As Cameron has already said, almost by reflex, ‘lessons must be learned’ and they will be: They’ll be a little more careful next time. Like the current cabinet already is by keeping their off-the-book chats to WhatsApp and Signal, where they’re harder to FOI or even automatically deleted.

Parris’ defence of Cameron is just the first splash of a tidal wave of toss designed to confuse and excuse his actions. After all, The Daily Telegraph is never going to dig into the endless piles of dirt created by a man who was its star columnist and will be again.