‘Bonkers’ and ‘baffled’ – Cameron’s increasingly incredulous texts on fintech firm

Written by Beckie Smith on 13 May 2021 in News
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The ex-prime minister’s sent more than 70 messages to ministers and officials regarding Greensill Capital

Credit: PA

Former prime minister David Cameron sent more than 70 text messages to ministers and officials in an attempt to get Greensill Capital access to a coronavirus lending scheme, it has been revealed.

A tranche of texts and emails to cabinet ministers, Treasury permanent secretary Sir Tom Scholar and others, handed over by Cameron and published by the Treasury Committee, have laid bare the extent of the lobbying the former PM did on behalf of the fintech company.

The messages, spanning three months in 2020, show Cameron becoming increasingly more insistent that officials examine proposals put forward by Greensill to extend the Covid Corporate Financing Facility to include supply-chain finance – the area in which the now-defunct firm specialised.

The published correspondence began last March, when Cameron texted Scholar asking if “Sir John C” – John Cunliffe, deputy governor at the Bank of England – was still working at the bank, adding: “Can I give you lunch once the budget is done?”

An email exchange that followed showed Cameron setting up a call with Cunliffe to discuss remarks made by Bank of England governor Andrew Bailed about supplychain finance. “I do a lot of work with Greensill Capital, now the world leaders in this space. We would be keen to help,” the ex-PM told Cunliffe in an email on 5 March 2020 – the first message setting out his work for the company.

In a later email to James Benford, economic director at the Treasury, Cameron said Greensill would be “keen to step [in] and help during the current difficulties” and proposed a meeting with Lex Greensill.

Later texts show Cameron setting up calls with Cunliffe, Scholar and others.


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In a text to Scholar on 6 March 2020, Cameron said he “never quite understood how rate cuts help a pandemic”. After a redacted section, the message continued: “I am riding to the rescue with supply chain finance with my friend Lex Greensill.”

Later the same month, Cameron told the perm sec he was “glad you are at the helm” during “impossibly difficult times”.

“We (Greensill) are in discussion with BofE about supply chain finance market and how to keep it open. Thought it would be good for you to see our proposal (v similar to 2008). So a letter from Lex Greensill is on its way to you. Hope that’s ok. Will also send a copy to Rishi. Unlike most of the problems we are facing right now, this one has a solution.”

Later in March, Cameron’s chief of staff texted Sheridan Westlake, senior special adviser to the prime minister, requesting contact details for Treasury second perm sec Charles Roxburgh. On 1 April, Cameron told Scholar “the message from Charles R is that they are engaging positively with Greensill’s new proposal and seeking to get time with the CX [chancellor] to get a decision. That is good, but this is getting urgent… please do all you can to expedite this and not get us stuck in the pending tray!”

Two days later, Cameron told Scholar he was “genuinely baffled” that Greensill’s proposal had been turned down. “Can I have five minutes for a call? This seems bonkers,” he told the perm sec.

The same day, he sent a flurry of texts to ministers in an apparent attempt to overturn the Treasury’s refusal to extend the Covid Corporate Financing Facility to include supply-chain finance – meaning Greensill was blocked from the scheme.

A message to chancellor Rishi Sunak asked for a “quick word” to discuss what Cameron said he thought was “a simple misunderstanding I can explain”. A second text to Westlake, the PM’s adviser, asked “why this is seen as tricky” and if there were other barriers that he did not know about.

Cameron also contacted financial secretary to the Treasury Jesse Norman about a “problem for SMEs that you can help solve”, and asked both Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove and economic secretary to the Treasury John Glen for a “word”.

In the following days, Cameron sent a series of messages to ministers and to Scholar indicating he had spoken to the chancellor and that “one more high-level chat” between Scholar, Roxburgh and Greensill would seal the deal.

“V much hoping – as agreed with CX – that you will be on the call,” he said in a message to Scholar on 7 April.

But a text to Sunak later the same month indicated his optimism had been misplaced, saying the “situation is still stuck”. “Could you try and give it another nudge over the line,” he asked.

In a response previously published by the Treasury, the chancellor said he had “pushed the team to explore an alternative with the Bank that might work”.

There were several messages between Cameron and Sunak over the following month, with Cameron initially positive about “huge progress” thanks to the chancellor’s intervention. But on 18 May, he asked Sunak to push Roxburgh to look at a final proposal from Greensill, intended to address the Treasury’s concerns that extending the lending scheme to supply-chain finance could be construed as giving support to foreign firms.

In May, Cameron also reached out to business minister Nadhim Zahawi – who he said had been “v solid on the media" – and Richard Sharp, then a member of the Bank of England’s financial policy committee, in what appeared to be a last-ditch attempt to get the proposals through.

Cameron's lobbying was ultimately unsuccessful, and Greensill Capital collapsed earlier this year.

The messages were published yesterday by the Treasury Committee of MPs, which is conducting an inquiry into the lessons learned from the Greensill lobbying scandal.

‘Full responsibility’
Appearing before the Treasury Committee yesterday, Lex Greensill said he bore "complete responsibility" for fintech firm’s collapse. 

"I am desperately saddened that more than 1,000 very hard-working people have lost their jobs at Greensill. Likewise, I take full responsibility for any hardship being felt by our clients and their suppliers, and indeed by investors in our programmes," he said.

"I am desperately saddened that more than 1,000 very hard-working people have lost their jobs at Greensill. Likewise, I take full responsibility for any hardship being felt by our clients and their suppliers, and indeed by investors in our programmes."
Lex Greensill

Greensill denied being a fraudster and insisted his business had been viable and transparent when questioned by MPs who suggested this may not have been the case.

"The business that we undertook was properly described, all of our investors understood exactly what they were purchasing," he told the committee. "In any investment there is risk but we took the history and current activity of our clients... which enabled us to see what was going to happen in the future and allow business to be able to access credit... for the private and public sector."

Before its demise, Greensill was often cited as one of the leading exemplars of the success of the UK’s fintech sector, as well as achieving so-called ‘unicorn’ status: a term applied to start-up tech firms valued at $1bn or more. At its zenith, the company’s worth was pegged as high as $7bn.

However, the credentials of its proprietary technology have been called into question since the company hit the wall, as it was unable to conclude a deal to sell its intellectual property and IT systems – even at a cut-price valuation of $60m, less then one-hundredth of the amount at which the firm was once valued.

 

About the author

Beckie Smith is acting deputy editor of PublicTechnology sister publication Civil Service World, where a version of this story first appeared. She tweets as @Beckie__Smith.

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