An inquiry into the David Cameron lobbying scandal has been attacked as a device to kick the controversy “into the long grass”, after No 10 failed to answer key questions about its remit.
Boris Johnson announced the investigation into how the former prime minister solicited Rishi Sunak, Matt Hancock and other ministers for the collapsed finance firm Greensill Capital, in an apparent bid to calm the row.
But Downing Street was unable to say whether it would have legal powers to secure evidence, would look into any breaches of the ministerial code or be able to recommend changes to lobbying rules.
It was also unclear whether the inquiry would probe how Lex Greensill was given privileged access to Whitehall when Mr Cameron was in No 10 – before going on to employ him.
Eyebrows were also raised over the “independent” head of the inquiry – leading lawyer Nigel Boardman – who is an adviser to the business department and the son of a Tory cabinet minister, Lord Boardman.
Mr Boardman is a partner at Slaughter and May, described as one of the City’s “magic circle” of law firms that advised the Treasury on the Covid-19 business support scheme at the centre of the affair.
Labour, which will attempt to drag Mr Sunak to the Commons on Tuesday to answer questions, warned the investigation had “all the hallmarks of another cover-up by the Conservatives”.
“Just as with the inquiry into Priti Patel’s alleged bullying, this is another Conservative government attempt to push bad behaviour into the long grass and hope the British public forgets,” said Rachel Reeves, the shadow Cabinet Office minister.
“We need answers on Greensill now – that means key players in this cronyism scandal like David Cameron, Rishi Sunak and Matt Hancock appearing openly in front of Parliament as soon as possible to answer questions.”
The Scottish National Party echoed the criticism, welcoming an inquiry but warning the government had a history of “attempting to kick scandals into the long grass”.
“It’s clear we need answers from cabinet ministers now. They cannot use the inquiry as a cheap excuse to duck accountability,” said Stewart Hosie, the party’s cabinet office spokesperson.
The inquiry was launched amid a storm of criticism of Mr Cameron for directly lobbying the Chancellor, by text message, and Mr Hancock, the health secretary, at a “private drink”.
Mr Sunak replied by saying he had “pushed” civil servants to explore how Greensill could be included within the emergency coronavirus loan scheme, the Treasury then revealed.
Mr Hancock discussed a proposed payment scheme with Mr Cameron and Mr Greensill that was subsequently introduced by the NHS.
Downing Street insisted the inquiry would “ensure government is completely transparent about such activities and that the public can see for themselves if good value was secured for taxpayers’ money”.
Mr Johnson’s spokesman added: “This independent review will also look at how contracts were secured and how business representatives engaged with government.”
The “exact timescales” and remit would follow, but the prime minister “wants this to be done thoroughly and he wants it to be done promptly”, he insisted.
The cabinet office’s “propriety and ethics team” began contacting ministers’ special advisers to establish whether they had also been contacted by Mr Cameron, it was reported.
One Conservative peer, Ralph Lucas, speculated that the inquiry would allow Mr Johnson to “push Cameron under a big red Borisbus”.
But Labour will attempt to keep the heat on the chancellor, securing an urgent question to establish how Greensill was accredited as a lender for the coronavirus large business interruption loan scheme (CLBILS) in June last year.
“We need to know what he ‘pushed’ his officials to do to help Greensill access one of his Covid loan schemes. And we need to know why he then simply opened the door for them to lend through another one,” said Anneliese Dodds, the shadow chancellor.
However, the question is expected to be answered by a junior business minister, rather than Mr Sunak, because that department is responsible for the scheme.
Breaking a month-long silence on Sunday, Mr Cameron conceded it was a mistake to lobby ministers informally on behalf of Greensill, but insisted he did not break any rules.
He said the value of his shares in Greensill’s collapsed company was “nowhere near” the figure of up to $60m (£44m) that has been reported.
Mr Cameron also insisted he had “very little to do” with Mr Greensill while in No 10, and met him only twice when prime minister, despite the financier describing himself as a “senior adviser”.
Another former prime minister, Gordon Brown, said ex-leaders should never lobby government for commercial purposes and suggested those leaving No 10 should face a five-year ban, at least.