Last modified on Sun 16 May 2021 04.17 EDT
It was excruciating. To watch a former British prime minister before a committee of MPs last week trying to explain away his aggressive lobbying of ex-colleagues on behalf of Greensill, which has since collapsed into insolvency, was as humiliating as it was distressing. That we are citizens of a country whose former leader can behave in such a way is shocking. He claimed that lobbying for Greenshill was consistent with a commitment to public service. Really?
Worse was the glaring mismatch between the former puritan apostle of austerity – we are all in this together – and the compromising of such values. And not only him. In varying degrees, the other three members of the coalition quad – chancellor George Osborne, deputy prime minister Nick Clegg and chief secretary Danny Alexander, who together imposed “peak austerity” between 2010 and 2015 – have all walked away from the public square only to raise major questions about how their new lives are consistent with their old and thus the credibility of what all politicians say as they vie for support. Our democracy is the weaker.
If Cameron’s glibness and lack of judgment are now obvious to all, they were also on display when he embraced the proposition after the financial crisis that, because the threat of debt was allegedly existential, the country had to accept numbing austerity, despite the servicing of public debt being at 300-year lows. The resulting devastation of communities and public services were important causes of the strength of the Leave vote and now the stubborn pockets of Covid in those areas stricken by a decade of cumulative and unnecessarily deep cuts. If you want to try to defend policy mistakes of such magnitude, tread carefully when you leave office.
But Cameron personifies a fundamental Tory frivolousness about both the consequences of power and how it is exercised. A famous critic of lobbying in opposition, when it came to legislation the proposals were thin, with always the possibility of executive discretion to put them to one side. In this vein, when Alexander, having lost his seat in 2015, wanted to become vice-president and corporate affairs director of China’s newly established Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), the prime minister’s advisory committee on business appointments simply suspended any waiting period. Supporting the AIIB was, after all, government policy.
For incredibly, the naive British government had taken a small stake in the AIIB, a front for China’s ambitious belt-and-road initiative (BRI), as part of the ill-fated Cameron-Osborne drive for the UK to be China’s bridge to the west. But the BRI, as Alexander must know now if he did not then, is overt 21st-century Chinese quasi-colonisation via debt. Seventy signatory countries, in exchange for Chinese soft loans to build infrastructure, essentially agree to kowtow to Chinese foreign policy.
What Alexander does and how much he is paid are opaque, but part of the AIIB’s mandate is to shape applicants’ projects so they can receive BRI funding. Alexander, in short, is facilitating a China that is suppressing Uyghurs and Hong Kong alike, with international protest limited because BRI signatory countries want the continuing flow of Chinese funds. Cameron also had eyes on China as a career move, becoming co-chair of a planned UK China Investment Fund in 2017. But with his reverse Midas touch, the fund never got off the ground and he is spared another public embarrassment.
Osborne’s pursuit of riches is to be made away from prying eyes. He is now to become a full-time member of the private, Mayfair-based boutique investment bank, Robey Warshaw, which, with 13 staff and three partners, has earned a reputation for being the secretive but successful go-to adviser on mega-mergers. The skill is to help bidders navigate delicate issues of regulation, intellectual property, security and competition, like those involving SoftBank’s bid for the hi-tech company Arm or Shell’s merger with BG, two great British companies extinguished by takeover. Over the last five years, the three partners have pulled in cumulative net profits of £187m. Doubtless Osborne will be using his mobile phone to good effect, if with a great deal more discretion than his old boss, to sustain that level of super-profitability. The author of public squalor is to become accomplice to scarcely credible private affluence; an invisible line has been crossed.
Meanwhile, Clegg is in California as Facebook’s vice-president for global affairs, his responsibility to steer the company through the minefield of growing attacks on how it exercises its awesome digital power. Awarded all the lush trappings of Silicon Valley success, nonetheless he does the best of all his former colleagues to square the circle as a self-described “political refugee”. He persuaded the CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, to create a genuinely independent Facebook oversight board that recently adjudicated on the decision to suspend Donald Trump from Facebook: yes, it was right to suspend him, but wrong to do so indefinitely, pointing up vagueness in Facebook’s own rules that the company will have to address. He has pushed for more transparency in its use of algorithms. But the reality remains. As leader of the Lib Dems, he would have been leading the charge to limit Facebook’s power, on the same side as its critics. Now he is Zuckerberg’s human shield, the company’s acceptable face. That invisible line has been crossed.
There is no roadmap for ex-prime ministers after leaving office, complained Cameron. True. But we can expect politicians to accept consistency in their careers and values. There is an ominous interaction between how easily our public institutions, so dependent on politicians accepting unwritten codes of good behaviour, have degraded into a casual network of “chums” and insiders scratching each other’s backs. Witness the emerging scandals about how Tory insiders were awarded juicy PPE contracts, so reinforcing this casual attitude towards how public authority is exercised and contracts and jobs awarded.
Politics should be a noble, lifelong cause, not just a short-term career option and means for individual enrichment. Until there is effective opposition capable of challenging for power and the prospect of root-and-branch constitutional reform, it’s hard to see how matters will get better. The quad foretells more and worse to come.
Will Hutton is an Observer columnist
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