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UK’s Johnson says he shares concerns over Greensill lobbying

Weekly question time debate in Parliament in London

LONDON (Reuters) -British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Wednesday he shared concerns over a growing lobbying scandal involving former leader David Cameron who tried to get ministers to help out the now failed supply-chain finance firm Greensill Capital.

Though Cameron’s strategy ultimately failed, Johnson has launched an independent review to look at allegations that lobbyists have an “open door” to his government.

Cameron’s role has raised questions about access to ministers by former colleagues, particularly on behalf of Greensill.

The government said on Tuesday a former procurement chief was allowed to take a part-time role advising the company in 2015 – when Cameron was prime minister – while remaining a public official, or civil servant.

The reports have fuelled accusations from some lawmakers that Johnson’s government operates a so-called “chumocracy” where contracts are handed to friends – a charge denied by the government, which says that Cameron’s lobbying did not yield his desired objective.

Asked by opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer whether lobbying rules were fit for purpose, Johnson told parliament: “I indeed share the widespread concern about some of the stuff that we’re reading at the moment.”

He said civil servants should have experience of the private sector but he cast doubt over whether the boundaries in the case of the former procurement chief had been “properly understood”.

Asked about his contacts with Cameron, Johnson said he had not been in contact with the former premier since the case was reported and that he could not “remember when I last spoke to Dave”.

Johnson launched the review on Monday after the Financial Times and Sunday Times newspapers reported that Cameron contacted ministers on behalf of Greensill, including sending text messages to finance minister Rishi Sunak and arranging a drink between banker Lex Greensill and Health Secretary Matt Hancock.

Greensill was brought in to advise the government while Cameron was prime minister from 2010 to 2016. After leaving office, Cameron became an adviser to Greensill’s now-insolvent company.

On Sunday, Cameron said in a statement he did not break any codes of conduct or government rules and that ultimately the outcome of the discussions on Greensill’s proposals on a loan were not taken up.

The Treasury Committee in the lower house of parliament said it would launch an inquiry into Greensill’s failure and how Sunak’s finance ministry responded to the lobbying efforts.

“The Committee will focus on the regulatory lessons from the failure of Greensill Capital and the appropriateness of HM Treasury’s response to lobbying in relation to Greensill Capital,” the committee said in a statement.

Labour’s Starmer summed up much of the criticism in Britain over lobbying by asking: “Does the prime minister accept there is a revolving door, indeed an open door, between his Conservative government and paid lobbyists?

“Every day there’s further evidence of the sleaze that’s now at the heart of this Conservative government.”

(Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge, Elizabeth Piper and William Schomberg; Editing by Nick Macfie/Mark Heinrich)

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