British politics over the last few years has not gone short on execrable moments, but if there has been a single one more execrable than David Cameron’s attempts to justify what he was up to at the now-bankrupt Greensill Capital then, well, I can only conclude my subconscious is keeping it buried deep down where it belongs.
Nothing I can ever recall runs this horror show close.
It’s not merely that it was all very obviously bulls***. That sort of thing is not uncommon. It’s that the entire premise, the entire terms of engagement were bulls*** too. To watch and listen to Cameron for two and a half full hours was not just to witness a man building a house of bulls*** using only bulls*** bricks and bulls*** cement. And it’s not just that the foundations were bulls*** too. The very earth into which it was set, the entire landmass and the wide sea around it – Bulls***. Bulls***. Bulls***.
We begin with a tale of pity, self-pity, of course. How had it come to pass that the man who had warned, in 2010, of the great scourge of lobbyists, and their malign influence on the noble business of politics, had become the very image of everything he warned against except a hundred times worse? Well, the former prime minister would explain, he had brought in important reforms when it came to lobbying, like the register of consultant lobbyists, but it hadn’t been enough. It hadn’t been enough, to be exact, to stop him doing what he had done.
Perhaps, with hindsight, perhaps there should be “a committee of some kind, of former permanent secretaries”, whose job it would be to guide and advise young ex-prime ministers, who wanted “to really get stuck in” after leaving No 10, what it is they really should and shouldn’t be doing.
Poor Dave. There had been no one there to help him, to advise him. No one to let him know, he, the actual former prime minister, that, for example, he shouldn’t necessarily be firing off dozens of begging text messages to every powerful person in his phone book, trying to prise open a pathway between a company that was paying him huge amounts of money, and an even more huge pile of taxpayer cash.
There was no one around to tell him this sort of thing wasn’t a good idea.
But all this hardly matters. It weighs hardly a feather in the balance compared to what would follow.
To even be able to listen to Cameron talk, to appraise the plausibility of what he said, the first thing that was required was to accept that the former prime minister had no idea what the company he worked for was doing.
He had been drawn to Lex Greensill’s world of “supply chain finance” because it was doing good work. It was making sure small businesses got paid on time. The world of supply chain finance has been doing good work for many years, centuries even. It is a very plain vanilla, very boring bit of the finance ecosystem. Making sure small businesses get paid on time is not the sort of work that can supply a nine-year-old company run by a man in his thirties with the same number of private jets – four – as Bill Gates.
Cameron, when asked several times, did not manage to deny he had used these private jets to nip down to Newquay to visit his holiday home.
He had taken the job at Greensill, he said, because he wanted “to really get stuck in, you know, sleeves rolled up”. He didn’t want to do the boring old ex-prime minister thing. A speech here and there. A job on the board of a big bank. He wanted to really get involved in this project.
But not so involved, it transpired, as to ever have a scintilla of an understanding as to what it was actually doing. His sleeves were not sufficiently rolled up, you must believe, he had not got stuck in far enough, despite his very best efforts, to know that at the point at which he was feverishly texting absolutely everybody he could think of to get access to government loans, he did not know that the business that was paying him a salary he would not disclose was staring down the barrel of insolvency.
He was not sufficiently stuck in to have even the first understanding of how the business worked. Didn’t suspect, perhaps, that what was happening was, in short, the hyper-aggressive securitisation of extremely high-risk assets that were ultimately not real, but were then badged up as low-risk bonds when they were nothing of the sort. Cameron, some time ago, was the leader of the opposition during the 2008 financial crisis. Had he not been able to blame Gordon Brown for not seeing it coming, for not knowing that all those credit default swaps didn’t have any real assets in them, he might never have become prime minister.
And yet here he was, an ex-prime minister rather sooner than he might have liked, staring into his laptop quite possibly from the comfort of his own shepherd’s hut, expecting the wider world to believe that he’d been working at a company that was, in itself, a near-perfect microcosm of that financial crash, but that he’d honestly had no idea. And that the free use of various private jets that he could neither confirm nor deny had not been enough of a clue.
All he’d wanted was for this ambitious little “UK fintech” company to succeed, but much to his regret, it had not. And he, like 5,000 or so steelworkers whose jobs were bound up in it, has lost his job.
It is a sorry tale. He famously only ever wanted to become prime minister because, in his own words, “I think I’d be really good at it.” And then he took his country out of the European Union by accident. He only wanted to help Greensill succeed, and now it’s gone bankrupt.
Poor Dave. What will he do next? One imagines the “little committee” he dreamt up to advise him may no longer be necessary. The employment market for ex-prime ministers may have become self-regulating. Because who in their right mind would ever give him a job after this?