Boris Johnson said today it was not clear “boundaries have been properly understood” by civil servants working with businesses as the row over lobbying in Government deepened.
Boris Johnson faced repeated questions over the continuing scandal from Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer after Greensill Capital’s links with Government and former prime minister David Cameron’s lobbying for the financial firm were revealed.
It emerged yesterday that the former head of Whitehall procurement became an adviser to Greensill Capital while still working as a civil servant, in a move approved by the Cabinet Office.
Bill Crothers began working for the firm as a part-time adviser to the board in September 2015 and did not leave his role as Government chief commercial officer until November that year.
But Mr Johnson today said the one person campaigning for the Greensill bank was shadow defence secretary and Wentworth and Dearne MP John Healey.
Mr Johnson said: “He (Sir Keir) asks about lobbying on behalf of Greensill and, again, I don’t wish to embarrass him but he doesn’t have far to look.
“There was one person asking for the Greensill bank to be able to use the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme and that was the shadow defence secretary.”
Mr Healey previously wrote to Business Secretary Nadhim Zahawi urging him to give Greensill, which was the main financial backer of Liberty Steel until its collapse earlier this year, better access to the Coronavirus Large Business Interruption Loan Scheme.
But he said this was legitimate due to Liberty’s Rotherham base falling within his constituency.
He said: “I’m proud to be an MP who stands up for steel-making and steel workers. I was doing my job in battling for the critical Government support needed for our Rotherham steelworks.
“Many other companies already had the go-ahead for these government loans and, after 10 weeks of talks, Liberty also needed this immediate financial help in the face of falling demand due to Covid.
“As Liberty’s lender, the route required for this support was Greensill and I said in my letter to the Minister, it is the government’s job to carry out due diligence.”
Speaking at Prime Minister’s Questions today Sir Keir said: “The shadow defence secretary was speaking for his constituents and local jobs, a million miles away from being a paid lobbyist, texting friends.”
Sir Keir asked Mr Johnson whether the rules on lobbying were tough enough, and Mr Johnson said: “I indeed share the widespread concern about some of the stuff that we're reading at the moment and I know that the Cabinet Secretary shares my concern as well.
“I do think it is a good idea, in principle, that top civil servants should be able to engage with business and should have experience in the private sector. When I look at the accounts I'm reading today, it's not clear that those boundaries have been properly understood.”
Mr Johnson said an independent review would report on the issues in June, but Sir Keir said the probe “isn't even looking at the lobbying rules” and he said Nigel Boardman who had been appointed to lead the review “worked for the same law firm which lobbied to loosen lobbying laws”. He said: “You can’t make it up.”
But Mr Johnson said Sir Keir was in no position to criticise after engaging Peter Mandelson in advising him.
He said: “And talk about lobbying, he is being advised by Lord Mandelson of Global Counsel Limited. Perhaps in the interest of full transparency, so we can know where he is coming from, Lord Mandelson could be encouraged to disclose his other clients?”
But Sir Keir replied: “I have not heard a defence that ridiculous since my last days in the Crown Court.
“It's called the shoplifters defence, everyone else is nicking stuff so why can't I?”
He added: “What we need, what we need is to overhaul the broken system.”
And he urged Tory MPs to vote with Labour this afternoon to set up a Parliamentary committee to investigate cronyism.
He said: “The Greensill scandal is just the tip of the iceberg. Dodgy contracts, privileged access, jobs for their mates, this is the return of Tory sleaze. It’s now so ingrained in this Conservative Government, we don’t need another Conservative Party appointee marking their own homework.
“The more I listen to the Prime Minister, the more I think Ted Hastings and AC-12 is needed to get to the bottom of this one.
“We know the Prime Minister will not act against sleaze, but this House can.”
However the PM said this would amount to “our politicians marking their own homework” and insisted there are “tougher” laws on lobbying.
He said: “A committee of MPs to look at it, it won’t do a blind bit of good.
“That’s why we’re having a proper independent review.”