Access to decision and policy-making is a right but not a privilege: David Cameron, lobbying, and regulation

13th April 2021

Let us start with one proposition, so as to see if it is sound or not.

The proposition is: that in a liberal democracy there should be no closed class of those who can seek to influence public policy.

Just as – in theory – any person can go to the lobby of the house of commons or write a letter to a member of parliament, any person can also attempt to speak to a minister or protest outside a ministerial office.

If this proposition is sound, then there is nothing, in principle, wrong with any person seeking to lobby any parliamentarian or minister.

And if that is a correct statement of principle, then it follows that the principle can be asserted by persons one disagrees with or disapproves of – including finance companies and former prime ministers.

Framed in this way there is a certain superficial plausibility to the contention that the former prime minister did nothing wrong in seeking to influence ministers about a company in which he had a personal interest.

Any wrongdoing would, it can be contended, be at the ‘supply-side’ of ministers and officials who wrongly were influenced by such lobbying, not the ‘demand side’ of the person seeking to obtain influence.

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Let us now look at rules.

As the estimable Dr Hannah White explains in this informative and helpful article, it would appear that the issue of Cameron’s lobbying is not about whether rules have been broken but that there appear to be no rules to be broken.

And so we have a gap.

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But.

There is something wrong.

It may be that there are no rules that have been engaged, still less broken.

And it may well be that one can (just about) aver that the general principle of openness means that any person from you to Cameron can seek to lobby a minister.

But it still seems wrong.

Yet a general sense of wrongness is not the same as effective regulation.

What can be done, if anything can be done?

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Part of the problem is indeed with the ‘supply side’ – any approaches by any person, former prime ministers or otherwise, should be reported and logged, and those approaches must be spurned unless there is absolute transparency.

It is not enough that we have the ‘good chaps’ theory that, of course, no minister or official would be (wrongly) influenced.

The general principle that any person in a liberal democracy should be able to seek to influence a minister does not mean such approaches should be cloaked – the quality of openness that attends the former carries over to the latter.

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Switching to the ‘demand side’ of seeking political or policy influence, the general principle that any person in a liberal democracy should be able to seek to influence a minister does not mean that there has to be an ‘anything goes’ approach.

Just as everyone has the ‘right’ to dine at the Ritz – but it an empty right when one cannot afford it – a right to lobby those with power is an empty right if one does not have connections or the know-how about making such access effective.

Unless lobbying is regulated then there will be a natural tendency for those with money – such as a finance company – and those with the best connections – such as a former prime minister – to have far more effective access and influence than others.

This then undermines if not negates the rights of others, as influencing decision-making, rule-making and policy-making becomes the preserve of those with better connections.

It is the right of the privileged, but one masquerading as a a general right of openness.

Any company should have the right to make representations to the government – but only on the same terms as as any other company.

This would mean that it is the merits of the representation that makes a difference, rather than the extent of the access.

And any lobbyist – of whatever background –  should not have a greater right of access than any other lobbyist.

This means by implication that there are certain individuals – such as former ministers and former senior officials – who if they are to be permitted to approach their former colleagues, should only do so under the full glare provided by absolute openness and transparency, and in accordance with published procedures.

And if such absolute openness and transparency and procedural certainty is not feasible, then they should not be able to directly approach ministers and officials at all – even if it is in respect of their personal interest (as opposed to on behalf of a paying client, which is a gap Cameron was able to exploit).

They can write a letter to a member of parliament, or wave a placard on Whitehall, like anyone else.

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19 thoughts on “Access to decision and policy-making is a right but not a privilege: David Cameron, lobbying, and regulation”

  1. I am reminded of ‘cash for questions’ where wealthy business people were able to exert political pressure that was unavailable and invisible to the general public. Lobbying is just the current version.

  2. It has often been said that the unwritten British Constitution* is based on the good/honest bloke assumption going back to the 18th Century.
    Given that politics in 18th Century England was a rather dirty/corrupt business, it could be said that nothing much has changed.
    Anybody know of a good book on corruption in 18th and 19th Century England? Perhaps a research project for someone?

    * I am unconvinced that any such thing really exists – beyond what the Prime Minister wants (as long as he controls the Commons).

    1. The corrupt practice of political patronage was known as “places, pensions and peerages”. Not much has changed it seems.

  3. If, as your tweet says the inquiry is bound to clear him, then what next?
    What is the brief or terms of reference for the inquiry?
    Who will serve on the inquiry and can it all be done by June?
    Will it be another Sewell and rewriting the report situation?
    We know the Chair has links to the Tory party, so is it truly independent?
    What of Johnson and Cameron’s relationship which goes back to school days?
    Can we take another major distraction from the business of running the country?
    Many fertile seeds for future blog posts.

  4. One of the most objectionable features of the present free for all is that there is no requirement on lobbyists to disclose approaches to Special Advisers. They do not generally last long in such roles and few have private means. It is unavoidable that most SPADS will end up working in areas where knowledge of government is valuable. It is therefore important that there should be sufficient transparency.

  5. I start from the presumption that there should be rules in place to stop the kind of thing that Cameron was engaged in.

    But.

    Not all lobbying is like this. Some thirty years ago, I and my colleague, the late Colwyn Williamson, lobbied – literally – MPs because of our concerns about the way academic standards were being compromised at our university. I’m not sure that ‘complete transparency and openness’ would have been in the interests of our campaign. I should add that we had no personal financial interest in the matter, unless you count the fact that we were threatened with the sack (‘bringing the institution into disrepute’) and so losing our salaries, which were rather less than £60 million.

  6. I believe that, for the unwashed, the opportunity to correspond with MPs is limited to those in the right constituency. At least that’s what it says on the standard email reply. Sometimes my helpful MP can write to a Minister on my behalf, but this is necessarily of limited usefulness, especially if my MP is for the opposition. Getting to a Minister needs the weight of a group or association in the right part of the government’s scope, or the weight of a colleague or ex-colleague who is known to the minister or his office. Working to the right civil servants or advisors is plausible but again needs their recognition of the likely quality of the input in advance. So, the field is anything but level, in every case. The ex-colleague route has the advantage that it relies for a reference only on the collegiate history, not on another filter, and thus can produce distortions, as in the recent case of Mr Cameron.

    1. Quite. In principle, anyone should be allowed to lobby anyone, but there are many filters between the general public and a cabinet minister’s in-tray or in-box. Perhaps you or I might lobby Rishi Sunak directly, if we had his telephone number so we could send him a text, but we don’t so we can’t.

      Cameron’s past position gives him special access. And he sold that privileged access to someone who did not need or deserve it.

      It smacks of corruption, and I suspect there has been rather more of it going on than is immediately apparent, over and above the foetid mire being slowly uncovered by the Good Law Project.

  7. Lobbying is not necessarily a bad thing. It probably does need some transparency, but trying to stamp it out is futile.

    In this case, as big a problem as Cameron’s lobbying and how he did it was what he was lobbying for, which was:

    a) to get government to do something stupid and financially disadvantageous, by putting Greensill Capital as an intermediary between Government and pharmacists and NHS employees and

    b) to get government to do something stupid and financially disadvantageous by acting as guarantor of loans from Greensill Capital to Liberty Steel and associated companies. To avoid libel, I won’t say what was really going on between Greensill and its main client, but would refer you to the FT, where I presume every word has been through its libel specialists.

    c) to put Greensill Capital in a position where it could make huge profits (or at least show huge profits, which isn’t quite the same thing at all; see b above) and go public, and hence enrich Cameron to the tune of tens of millions.

    Had the hapless Cameron been lobbying for improved funding for one of the charities he associated with or for a company near one of his homes, I don’t suppose there would be much fuss over him using his personal contacts. But instead he was lobbying for a bad business, a business that subsequently failed, for personal gain, and in part to encourage the government to do things which were not in its interests.

    It is also worth saying that the system worked. The Civil Service, to its enormous credit, resisted Cameron’s efforts, even when serving ministers quite possibly were pushing for a different outcome. I think we can safely say that the report, when it comes out, will focus on the fact that the system worked, and not on any issues on which people might have concerns. Of course, we don’t know whether there have been cases where the system did not work.

    1. Meanwhile to his credit Lord Pickles has picked up a conflict of interest between a civil servant also working for Greensill with the knowledge of the Cabinet office. What next and will this be part of the inquiry?

  8. I think Dan has hit the nail.

    I am not surprised by lobbying, I am not surprised by secrecy, I am not surprised by sleaze. But what is disappointing is risking lumbering the taxpayer with a dud deal in return for 30 pieces. For that he loses any shred of business credibility. Surely a politician would not knowingly lumber the taxpayer with a dud deal – would he?

    1. Alas yes they would knowingly lumber the taxpayer with a dud deal, as the shenanigans over contracts related to Coronavirus shows. The state is there to be plundered.

      This set of politicians have no shame. The unwritten rules no longer apply.

  9. Interesting that the Prime Minister is willing to set up an enquiry into Cameron’s lobbying, but not one into the government‘s handling of the pandemic. The cynic might assume that he is keen to see Cameron’s reputation damaged.

    1. A personal feud that goes back to the playing fields of Eton. Yes, it is terribly convenient to draw attention away from his own inadequacies, but it is also petty, personal and puerile.

  10. Perhaps you would be interested to see how the (vey imperfect but better than nothing) EU Transparency Register works (it applies only to organised interests, not citizens). If its rules applied in this case, Cameron would have to be registered as a lobbyist (although he might have gotten away with not doing so). However, Greensil would have been obliged to register in order to have the meeting in the first place and the Minister would have been obliged to declare the meeting in a public database.

  11. If I donate £50K to the Conservative and Unionist party, I get to have dinner with the Prime Minister or one of his ministerial chums. Apparently this is part of a thriving democracy.

  12. It seems to have been glossed over that David Cameron has had Lex Greensill at his elbow since 2011 when Jeremy Haywood brought the latter into No 10 as an advisor; it seems the rot started early on in Cameron’s catastrophic premiership.

    No doubt the closed “enquiry” will produce a slap-hand rebuke for the naughty Mr Cameron; but as Sky’s timeline below shows, whatever rules or legislation comes into play after the dust settles on this particular row, it will have to be far more wide ranging than the simple act of lobbying by ministers or prime ministers.

    https://news.sky.com/story/greensill-how-did-the-david-cameron-lobbying-scandal-unfold-12275439

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