The appointment of Nigel Boardman to head an inquiry into how Lex Greensill lobbied for access to public loan schemes in Downing Street came at an acutely embarrassing moment for Boris Johnson. The stench of sleaze had reached some of his most senior ministers.
David Cameron, Johnson’s Etonian rival and political sparring partner, had been disclosed as a paid lobbyist for a firm whose collapse threatened thousands of jobs in the steel industry.
At the height of the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic, the former prime minister had lobbied junior ministers, civil servants and cabinet ministers, including the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, and then health secretary Matt Hancock, for access to public lending schemes – safe in the knowledge that, if successful, Cameron stood to make more than £40m.
As the scandal unfolded, it emerged that the Cabinet Office under Francis Maude, who is now advising Johnson on Whitehall, had allowed senior civil servants to simultaneously moonlight for Greensill.
Announcing a fully independent inquiry in mid-April, Johnson said Boardman would have “carte blanche” to recommend changes to lobbying rules and could examine official documents.
But suspicions that the report could be a stitch-up – and a handy way of taking the heat out of a growing cronyism and corruption scandal – were raised immediately.
The terms of reference of the inquiry remained narrowly focused on “the development use of supply chain finance in government” and avoided the actual problem of lobbying.
Testimony would remain in private and Boardman had no powers to summon witnesses.
And then there were Boardman’s close links to a government department at the centre of the Greensill scandal. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), where Boardman was a non-executive director, had asked for multiple “progress” updates on Greensill’s application to the coronavirus large business interruption loan scheme.
It also emerged that Boardman, the son of a Conservative minister, had been a member of the party until the turn of the century and had once stood for election to Islington council.
Senior civil servants began to fear the worst when Suzanne Heywood, the widow of Jeremy Heywood, was told by Boardman that neither she nor a third party would be allowed to give evidence to the inquiry on his behalf.
Evidence unearthed by Boardman shows that Heywood did help Greensill access the very heart of government. In one telling email, the former cabinet secretary emailed a colleague saying: “Lex is giving huge amounts of his personal time to HMG and needs occasional use of No 10 to host senior business people
“Let’s discuss tonight if u have reservations”.
In his report, Boardman’s conclusions regarding lobbying have prompted transparency campaigners to wonder if he had observed the same events.
“Engagement between government and a wide range of interested parties, which many refer to as ‘lobbying’, is vital to the proper functioning of democracy,” Boardman said.
“It can provide decision-makers with insights and data, and enables governments to understand the impact of public policy on those it may affect. It is fundamental that legislators and the executive listen to the voters.”
Questions remain unanswered as to which minister gave permission to Heywood to allow Greensill into Whitehall; why Sunak, Hancock and others were so willing to accept calls from Cameron lobbying on Greensill’s behalf; and whether the rules around lobbying and transparency need to be tightened.
Parliamentary inquiries into the Greensill affair will rumble on. William Wragg, the Conservative chair of the public administration and constitutional affairs committee, is expected to call Boardman himself to give evidence about the prime minister’s independent review. While his government has escaped criticism in this report, Greensill could yet cause problems for Johnson.