A new era of “sleaze”? How the Greensill scandal is setting the stage for a political blame game which could stifle genuine reform

By Sabine Tyldesley

The sobriety of the Commons when tributes to the late Duke of Edinburgh were heard quickly evaporated into the usual politicking as the Chamber reacted to the Greensill lobbying scandal. Given the stream of stories over the past few days it is no surprise that Leader of the Opposition Sir Keir Starmer chose this topic as the lead theme of his questions to the Prime Minister, saying it represented ‘the return of Tory sleaze’.

The focus in recent days has been on industry lobbying and a very necessary and important debate over the adequacy of the existing legislation (read more on that here) .  Today’s news headlines in contrast showcased two well-rehearsed blame dynamics seen in politics when things go wrong:  
1) Political blaming in both directions between the Government and the Opposition; and 2) The Government shifting blame from elected MPs and Ministers to civil servants.

Opposition v ruling party

On the former, Labour is wasting no time in seizing its opportunity. The Party is using its Opposition day debate to debate the topic “Committee to investigate the lobbying of Government”. In this they forced a vote on having a select committee-led inquiry into the Greensill case to have ministers appear before the inquiry and have documents disclosed. In theory this tactic works in the Opposition’s favour because a Conservative vote ‘against’ can be branded as a vote against transparency and in favour of “dodgy dealing”. It will further give the Opposition ammunition to discredit the Boardman Review announced by Cabinet Office on Monday.

Prime Ministers’ Questions thus served as a springboard for Labour Leader Keir Starmer to question if lobbying rules were fit for purpose and stress the party’s rhetoric on a wider narrative of “sleaze”. Starmer used all of his questions on this topic and leant heavily into the timelines of the scandal and built up to his key ask for a “proper” parliamentary inquiry into the laws.

The PM did not take the bait on how the party would vote and kept referencing the independent Cabinet Office review, which he stressed would be more rigorous than a parliamentary inquiry could be. He stressed that he too shared concerns and seemed to concede that some of the “boundaries” between civil servants and business had not been “properly understood”.

Blame shifting onto civil service?

On the latter, it has been a quick pivot to focus on the civil service. While first reported in the Sunday Times on 21 March, the Greensill case only entered the wider public consciousness about a week ago.

Today, we saw the debate shifting ever further onto the role of civil servants. Yesterday, it was reported a senior civil servant served as a director of Greensill Capital in the final two months of his civil service role. Since then and over the course of today more and more civil servants have been forced into the spotlight as having held second jobs or engaging in inappropriate conduct.

A senior minister also pushed officials in the foreground ahead of ministers, quoted as saying: “It is appropriate to investigate whether senior civil servants, who are public servants and whose loyalties should lie with the public only, permitted themselves to take liberties with the rules for personal gain. It is also reasonable to ask how ministers at the time allowed the appearance of impropriety to arise.”

The civil service union FDA in a reaction statement called this an attempt to deflect attention from Ministers and stressed the Cabinet Office inquiry did not specify whether officials or ministers would be scrutinized.

While the debate will not conclude until later this evening the motion has just been voted on and has been defeated and with more news coming out some media outlets are predicting this story will run for a while yet.

Greensill is seemingly joining the list of case studies where the blame game is played on those two levels. For those hoping for action and greater scrutiny of lobbying as a vital tool of democracy can only hope genuine reform doesn’t get caught in the crossfire.