PMQs verdict: Going after Greensill

Parliament is back from its Easter recess and there was only one topic of conversation. The unfolding scandal surrounding Greensill Capital, and dodgy Dave’s dodgy lobbying habit.

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Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron (L) and Mayor of London Boris Johnson walk to a function on the second day of the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham, Britain September 29, 2014. REUTERS/Luke MacGregor/Files

WESTMINSTER (Labour Buzz) - Starmer’s challenge was to make the scandal relevant to voters and to drag Johnson into the mess. He managed that and more in his best performance for some time. 

Round one: Greensill capital  

Starmer began by paying tribute to Shirley Williams, Ian Gibson and dame Cheryl Gillan who passed away this week. 

“Does the PM believe that the current lobbying rules are fit for purpose?”

Johnson defended the principle of civil servants meeting businesses. “I do think it’s a good idea in principle that top civil servants should be able to engage with business,” he said. However, he conceded that it was “not clear those boundaries had been properly understood.”

Score: No clear knock out blow, but Starmer laid some important groundwork here. He challenged the Prime Minister to show a clear commitment that the rules need to be changed. David Cameron did not break the current rules, yet most fair-minded people would say his behaviour stinks. 

By talking about civil servants rather than ministers and not focusing on the rules Johnson was sticking by the status quo and that would come back to bite him. 

Round two: A Government-wide scandal  

“I know he’s launching an inquiry,” but complained that it’s not looking at lobbying rules. “I’m not sure it’s looking at very much at all,” he added. Every day, he said, there is further evidence of the sleaze that is now at the heart of this conservative government. 

Starmer laid out the plans in damning detail. 

  1. Cameron hires Lex Greensill as a senior adviser. 
  2. Cameron leaves Downing Street and becomes a paid lobbyist for Greensill. 
  3. Cameron arranges meetings with ministers and officials and lobbies for Greensill to be given taxpayer money. 
  4. The Chancellor pushes officials to look at Greensill and the Health Secretary meets with Cameron and Greensill. 

Score: a point to Starmer: Johnson struggled to answer. He tried to talk about lobbying against taxpayer lobbying which Labour promised to repeal. But it didn’t get him out of the mess. Starmer phrased his questions very well. He brought up the dreaded word ‘sleaze’ a term which will strike fear into the heart of any Tory who remembers 1997. He highlighted the use of taxpayer money, making this directly relevant to voters. 

Round three: Who else is involved?

Clearly starting to enjoy himself Starmer asked a ‘simpler’ question: “Is the Prime Minister aware of any other government official who had commercial links with Greensill?”

Johnson challenged him to pass on any information he has to the review. He then went onto the attack. 

Talk about lobbying he’s being advised by ‘Lord Mandelson of global council Limited’.

It was desperate and Starmer leapt on it. “I haven’t heard a defence that ridiculous since my last days in the Crown Court,” he said. “It’s called the shoplifter’s defence. ‘Everyone else is nicking stuff so why can’t I?’ It never worked.”

Score: Another solid point for Starmer. If this was a boxing match Johnson would have been glancing anxiously back to his corner by now. 

Round four: Taxpayer money

How was it, Starmer wanted to know, that Greensill Capital got the green light to give hundreds of millions of pounds of government-backed loans. 

Johnson desperately went after the Shadow Defence Secretary who, he said, had backed Greensill’s involvement in the business interruption loan scheme. 

By now Starmer was almost giggling. “It gets weaker and weaker,” he said. When Johnson piped up that he’d made a good point he was shot down brutally. “If you think it’s a good point you’ve got real problems.”

The Shadow Defence Secretary was speaking for his local constituency and local jobs. John Healy urged the government to give Greensill the opportunity to issue larger loans in order to support steelworks in his constituency. That is, as Starmer pointed out ‘a million miles away from being a paid lobbyist texting friends in government.”

Round five: Overhaul the system 

Starmer was now beginning to really drive things home. He moved to the inquiry and the fact that the man leading it had lobbied for rules to be relaxed. “You couldn’t make it up.”

Labour is introducing a motion for a proper investigation. He called on Johnson to support it.  

Score: another point to Starmer. Johnson desperately tried to support the existing rules which have been shown to be woefully inadequate. 

Round six. It’s a knockout

The Prime Minister should be voting with us, not blocking an independent inquiry. “This,” he said, “was the return of Tory sleaze.” It has become ‘ingrained into culture,’ he added. “We don’t need a Tory party appointee to mark their own homework.” 

He then turned his attention to the rest of the house. We know the government won’t change the rules, so he called on the house to do it. 

Boris Johnson launched into his usual rambling closing statements. They had little to do with the question and prompted the speaker to intervene. 

“At least try to answer the question,” he implored.

Score: Any time that the speaker intervenes that’s a definite point to Starmer. He challenged the Prime Minister and the Tory MPs to do the right thing later this afternoon safe in the knowledge they will do nothing.

PMQs verdict 

For the first time in a while, Starmer seemed to make headway. Johnson might feel that the Greensill crisis doesn’t reach him. He didn’t know about it and, as far as we know, did nothing improper.

However, he still ended the session sounding even more dazed and confused. Starmer is building an effective narrative. He managed to link the crisis to the use of taxpayer funds and he brought back the dreaded word sleaze. 

From PPE contracts to lobbying rules, this government is building up a track record of sleaze. It was sleaze that did for John Major and it could be sleaze that does for Johnson. 

In the short term, he managed to advance the Greensill crisis one stage further to one which directly includes the Prime Minister. 

(Written by Tom Cropper, edited by Klaudia Fior)

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