Shapps’ “Looking-glass World” defence of Sunak adds to mounting questions
Shapps’ “Looking-glass World” defence of Sunak adds to mounting questions
On the Today programme this morning, the Transport Secretary Grant Shapps claimed that the right thing to do when “a former parliamentarian texts you on behalf of a business and says … I need some government support” is “just forward it on” and “let it be dealt with the usual channels” and “leave it to the civil service.” The Transport Secretary claimed that is the essence of the “propriety of the system”.
It’s clear from his own messages that the Chancellor did not follow this process.
Rather than simply forwarding the message on to the civil service, the Chancellor appears to have called David Cameron back to have a conversation directly related to government business and the design of schemes. And he failed to have a civil servant present and failed to log the meeting in his transparency disclosures.
It is also clear that the Chancellor did not allow the message to be dealt with by “the usual channels”.
Instead, he “pushed” his team to give special consideration to this request, resulting in the most senior officials in the Treasury meeting with the company ten times.
Labour is calling for a full, transparent thorough investigation into whether the Chancellor may have broken the Ministerial Code and the chain of events that saw Greensill awarded lucrative contracts, the freedom of Whitehall and the right to lend millions of pounds of government-backed Covid loans.
Bridget Phillipson MP, Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, said:
“Just as when Dominic Cummings breached lockdown rules, it has fallen to the Transport Secretary to defend the conduct of his Government’s conduct on the airwaves. And his defence was no less surreal this time.
“Shapps admitted ‘the rules are crystal clear … you simply forward [it] on’ when ministers are approached to help people get access to public money. But the only thing ‘crystal clear’ in this case is that the Tories are mounting yet another Lookingglass World defence of one of their own. Rishi Sunak’s own texts reveal he was ‘pushing’ his team to help Greensill get access to taxpayer money.
“The Conservatives are hoping they can bluster and deceive their way through yet another scandal, blocking investigations at every turn and claiming that there is nothing to see here. But these allegations are serious: the Chancellor’s actions potentially put hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayer cash at risk – claiming that black is white simply won’t wash.”
Notes to Editors
- Transcript of Grant Shapps MP on Today, Radio 4, Friday 9 April:
Q: Just in principle so people understand the rules, if a former parliamentarian texts you on behalf of a business and says – Transport Secretary, I need some government support. Do you think it’s within the rules, do you think it’s legitimate, for you to text back, have phone calls, have conversations without officials present in order to see what you could do to help an old friend?
GS: The rules are crystal clear. What you must do is let officials know about whatever has happened, and you can’t help somebody contacting you or what have you, and you simply forward that on and that is the right approach. Just forward it on and that decision is then made by the civil service machine in a situation like this. Of course, in this particular case, the request was turned down.
Q: Yes, but Rishi Sunak said to Mr. Cameron in one of the texts – I am pushing them. Pushing them, in other words, to change their decision. Now, in the end, as you said, the official didn’t. But is it right for a serving politician to say to an old colleague – don’t worry, I’m trying to get them to change their mind?
GS: I don’t think that’s what he’s saying, and I think he’s just being polite to a former colleague, as you say. But in the end it’s turned down anyway and I understand that he phoned to tell him it had been turned down. So, I don’t think there’s any issue here of impropriety, at all. He’s followed absolutely to the letter what you should do. In fact, it actually says in the ministerial code – if you get contact like this, what you must do is forward it on and let it be dealt with by the usual channels. Which is exactly what happened to a negative result.
- Four ways the Chancellor may have breached the ministerial code
- Text message one: the Chancellor replied to Cameron directly rather than pass it through his civil servants (Potentially contravenes the principle of objectivity)
- Text message two: In between message one and two it appears the Chancellor spoke to Cameron. No civil servant was present and/or the meeting was not logged. (Potentially contravenes section 8.14 of the Ministerial Code)
- Text message two: the Chancellor “pushes” civil servants to work on a solution for Greensill Capital, taking a decision to benefit a contact (Potentially contravenes the principle of integrity)
- Text message two: this decision is arguably in the Chancellor’s private interest, not the public interest (Potentially contravenes the principle of selflessness)
- Further detail
- As a personal contact, the Chancellor should have ensured that David Cameron sought these meetings via the standard channels open to any other firm. Instead, the Chancellor sent a text message on 3April, agreeing to speak to Cameron about this matter (“I am stuck back to back on calls but will try you later this evening and if gets too late, first thing tomorrow”). This may contravene the objectivity principle, as it is unfair to others that are not personal contacts and unable to access the Chancellor in this way.
- Between 3 and 23 April, it appears that further communication occurred between David Cameron and the Chancellor. If this communication was in person or via a phone call, there should have been a civil servant present, as section 8.14 of the Ministerial Code states“A private secretary or official should be present for all discussions relating to Government business”. Section 8.14 also says that “Departments will publish quarterly, details of Ministers’ external meetings”. But no such record of meetings between the Chancellor and David Cameron or any Greensill Capital representative was recorded or published by the department.
- In his second text to David Cameron, the Chancellor says that “I have pushed the team to explore an alternative with the Bank that might work.” This refers to the effort to changing the terms of the CCFF so that Greensill Capital would be eligible. This message reveals that the Chancellor directed civil servants to work on a policy directly as a result of lobbying by a private and personal contact.If this is the case, it would contravene the integrity principle, as the Chancellor acted/took decisions in order to gain financial or other material benefits for a personal contact.
- The Chancellor’s second text may also contravene the selflessness principle, as rather than the public interest, the Chancellor was acting in his private interest by directing civil servants to work on a solution to suit Greensill Capital.
- The Ministerial Code
The Ministerial Code states that Ministers are expected to observe the Seven Principles of Public Life. Three of these are particularly relevant:
Holders of public office should act solely in terms of the public interest.
Holders of public office must avoid placing themselves under any obligation to people or organisations that might try inappropriately to influence their work. They should not act or take decisions in order to gain financial or other material benefits for themselves, their family, or their friends. They must declare and resolve any interests and relationships.
Holders of public office must act and take decisions impartially, fairly and on merit, using the best evidence and without discrimination or bias.
The other four principles of the Ministerial Code are:
Holders of public office are accountable for their decisions and actions and must submit themselves to whatever scrutiny necessary to ensure this.
Holders of public office should act and take decisions in an open and transparent manner. Information should not be withheld from the public unless there are clear and lawful reasons for doing so.
Holders of public office should be truthful.
Holders of public office should exhibit these principles in their own behaviour. They should actively promote and robustly support the principles and be willing to challenge poor behaviour wherever it occurs.