Labour has accused Boris Johnson’s government of complacency over the lobbying scandal threatening to engulf it after a cabinet minister defended David Cameron’s actions as “acceptable”.
Environment secretary George Eustice also appeared to play down suggestions that wide-ranging reforms might be necessary, talking of “tweaks” to the current system.
Shadow Cabinet Office minister Rachel Reeves said that, less than a week after Boris Johnson announced a probe into the Greensill affair, “the government’s latest approach appears to be to shrug their shoulders and say ‘Scandal? What scandal?’” adding that Tory sleaze was back and “bigger than ever”.
At the weekend a senior Tory MP, Sir Bernard Jenkin, the chair of the Commons Liaison Committee, warned the prime minister that he risked losing the electoral gains he has made against Labour if he did not clean up the damage from the “shameful” Greensill scandal.
The row erupted after it emerged that Mr Cameron had texted the chancellor Rishi Sunak on behalf of Greensill Capital.
In the latest twist in the story, which has sparked a series of inquiries, The Sunday Times reported that Mr Cameron also lobbied the NHS on behalf of the company just weeks into the coronavirus pandemic.
Challenged about the former prime minister’s actions, Mr Eustice told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: “He has not broken any of the rules. It is acceptable”.
He added: “I think always on these things the issue is less about who someone might have spoken to; the issue is always how did a minister act after that conversation?
“And I think it is very clear to me, from what I can see, that the chancellor has not acted at all improperly.
“He flagged it, he looked at it, and nothing was done on that case.”
Asked about Mr Cameron’s bid to influence ministers, the environment secretary said: “He didn’t get anything for it and the company went bust.”
Mr Eustice added that he had last spoken to Mr Cameron probably a “few months ago” and that they had not discussed Greensill.
He later claimed in an interview with Times Radio that “tweaks” could be made to the system by which ministers declare outside interests in the wake of the scandal.
He said: “There’s quite a lot of declaration of interest, or potential interest, that goes on at the moment. It’s quite a thorough system that we’ve got and it generally works quite well. But that’s not to say that if following this episode there are certain lessons to be learned, or tweaks or changes that could be made, that we shouldn’t look at this.”
Also speaking on The Andrew Marr Show, Ms Reeves claimed: “Tory sleaze is back, it is bigger than ever, and we are seeing the erosion of trust in our politics because of the behaviour [of] a few at the top of the Conservative Party.
“I don’t want any stone to go unturned in these investigations, but let’s be clear – standards have fallen so far in the last 11 years under this Conservative government.”
She added: “What we want to see – we wanted this week, and that is why we had a vote on it – [is] to have a proper inquiry.
“Not chaired by one of Boris Johnson’s friends – a very close friend of the Conservative Party is Nigel Boardman, who is doing the review – but a proper independent inquiry that has teeth and has the chance to make recommendations on how to clean this up.
“Because this isn’t just about Greensill: Greensill is the tip of the iceberg.”
However, she dismissed suggestions that the situation could be compared to that of Labour’s former first minister of Wales, Carwyn Jones, who took a private-sector job despite concerns from officials.
“With lobbying it takes two to tango,” said Ms Reeves. “For every person doing the lobbying there is someone in power today who is willing to take those calls, to have those drinks, to push those boundaries.
“And that is what is happening in this government.”
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