Greensill shows it’s time to clean up government. Start with politicians’ private messaging

Successive governments have sought to circumvent civil service bureaucracy by using private communication channels. But these shortcuts remove necessary checks on political power—as the Greensill scandal shows

April 19, 2021
Photo: ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo: ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo

Soon after David Cameron became prime minister, he attended his first G8 heads of government dinner—the elite social occasion at which the most powerful men and women in the world are supposed to bond over the dover sole with no officials present. He was amazed to discover, he later told me, that Barack Obama, Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel spent the whole time texting their aides for advice. 

The former prime minister took this to heart and learned from their example. If Tony Blair ran a “sofa government,” with a small clique squashed onto the soft furnishings in Number 10, Cameron operated a “text message” administration, communicating with his ministers and advisers directly from his mobile phone. It is therefore not entirely surprising that it was text messages (between Cameron and Chancellor Rishi Sunak) that precipitated the Greensill lobbying scandal which now threatens to engulf the entire political class. 

In the 19th century, ministers would convey their public thoughts to each other through handwritten memos, and share their private concerns over a drink at their club. In the 20th century, emails came along and New Labour used pagers to whip MPs into line. Then, as technology developed, text messages—short, sweet and personal—took over. The modernity and informality of this method of communication appealed to Cameron, who favoured Converse trainers over brogues. It was also useful politically to avoid the official channels. During the coalition government, text messages were the ideal way of excluding the Liberal Democrats as well as circumventing the civil service. The prime minister had two phones—the official government issue handset and a personal one. Ministers would know they had made it into the inner circle if the texts came from the personal (and therefore totally unmonitored) phone. 

After the Christchurch earthquake, Cameron even tapped out his condolences to his New Zealand counterpart in a text message. Johnson was once given a dressing-down by text after a perceived act of disloyalty. He in turn used a text message to inform Cameron that he intended to vote Leave in the EU referendum, while acknowledging: “Brexit will be crushed like a toad under the harrow.” Later, after Michael Gove knifed Johnson in the back during the 2016 Tory leadership contest, Cameron sent a revenge text to his rival which said: “You should have stuck with me, mate.” 

One member of Cameron’s cabinet explained to me at the time that the rapidly accelerating 24-hour news cycle had increased the need for instant and direct messages between ministers. “There’s less time in government for chewing the cud. Texts remind you that there’s a personal side to politics—it’s not all political strategy.” But the culture of “text message government” reinforced the sense that the elite Tory Notting Hill set was running a chumocracy. More importantly, it undermined the formal Whitehall processes that act as a check on political power. Officials who routinely listen into prime ministerial phone calls and are included on email copy lists have reduced access to texts. Senior civil servants warned that they were being “bypassed” by the text message culture in Downing Street.

This refusal to follow the proper procedures is behind the current lobbying scandal, and the civil service is being dragged into the row because of the blurring of the previously clear lines between the public and private sector. A slow, steady erosion of punctiliousness in Whitehall has built up over years. Successive administrations have seen their officials as the “roadblock to reform” or the “enemy within,” and tried to circumvent the bureaucracy on which the government machine depends. 

Blair’s “sofa cabinet” style of government, with key decisions made by a handful of people from “the den” in Number 10, was even blamed for mistakes made in the run-up to the war in Iraq. As former cabinet secretary Robin Butler said in his review of the intelligence on weapons of mass destruction: “We are concerned that the informality and circumscribed character of the government's procedures which we saw in the context of policy-making towards Iraq risks reducing the scope for informed collective political judgment.” 

Theresa May tried to return to traditional cabinet committees and minuted meetings, even replacing the sofa in her office with a glass-topped table and hard chairs to symbolise a return to a more formal approach. But just as Cameron ran a text message government, May’s No 10 soon succumbed to excessive secrecy, while Westminster as a whole descended into faction-fighting, organised through WhatsApp groups for different tribes of MPs. 

Now, to continue the technology analogy, Boris Johnson is presiding over an “emoji government,” based more on instinct and emotion than on rigour and reason. It’s heart over head for the prime minister—thumbs up, smiley face, Union Jack, vaccine syringe. Indeed, when the prime minister’s fiancée Carrie Symonds announced their engagement, and her pregnancy, on Instagram, the message was full of emojis, including one of a chick emerging from an egg.  

If anything, Johnson is even more willing to ignore the rules and proprieties than any of his predecessors. His decision to prorogue parliament was declared unlawful by the Supreme Court and his respect for international law is scarcely more impressive. He saw nothing wrong with Jennifer Arcuri attending trade missions under his mayoral banner while they were intimates. He overruled his own ethics adviser, Alex Allan, on the bullying allegations made against Priti Patel, prompting the watchdog to resign. We are now seeing a steady drip of revelations about ministers with apparent conflicts of interest. It looks like, as one ally of the prime minister said in relation to Covid-19, “rules are for little people.”

A former cabinet minister, who supported Johnson for the Tory leadership, today describes him as “a rudderless populist with national socialist tendencies and a disrespect for law and convention.” 

This matters because good governance depends on proper processes being followed. The constitutional historian Peter Hennessy devised the “good chap theory” of politics, arguing that in the absence of a written constitution the system requires decency at the top. He worries that this is now being dangerously eroded. “We have had historically a superbly clean and decent system of government, but that depends on fastidiousness,” he tells me. “Procedure is boring but crucial and like good plumbing, you notice it when it’s gone wrong.

“Politics attracts chancers, people who don’t cherish process, so [we] need the system to keep that in check. The state of mind of that world has changed almost beyond recognition; you have had these shadow governments going on. If the alarm bells don’t ring soon enough, it’s almost beyond repair.”