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David Cameron has accepted he should have communicated with the government "through only the most formal of channels" after it emerged he took scandal-hit financier Lex Greensill for a “private drink” with Health Secretary Matt Hancock to lobby him over a payment scheme for the NHS.
The former Prime Minister insisted, however, that he complied with the rules when lobbying the government on behalf of Greensill Capital.
Breaking his weeks of silence, Mr Cameron said in a statement to the PA news agency that having “reflected on this at length” he accepts there are “important lessons to be learnt”.
In his first comments since the story over his lobbying on behalf of Mr Greensill emerged, Mr Cameron added he had "reflected on this at length"
His remarks came after Mr Hancock became the fourth minister to be caught up in the “growing scandal” that has also involved Chancellor Rishi Sunak.
The Sunday Times reported the Conservative former leader arranged a “private drink” between the Health Secretary and Mr Greensill to discuss a payment scheme later rolled out in the NHS.
Questions have been mounting over his efforts to secure access for the finance company, which later collapsed, putting thousands of UK steelmaking jobs at risk.
The paper also reported that the Treasury reconsidered Mr Greensill’s application for an emergency coronavirus loan after the former prime minister messaged a senior adviser to Boris Johnson.
Mr Cameron said on Sunday: “In my representations to government, I was breaking no codes of conduct and no government rules.”
He said that “ultimately” the outcome of his efforts to get Greensill’s proposals included in the government’s Covid Corporate Financing Facility (CCFF) was that “they were not taken up”.
“So, I complied with the rules and my interventions did not lead to a change in the government’s approach to the CCFF,” he added.
“However, I have reflected on this at length. There are important lessons to be learnt. As a former prime minister, I accept that communications with government need to be done through only the most formal of channels, so there can be no room for misinterpretation.”
Mr Cameron was said to have described the decision to exclude his employer’s firm, Greensill Capital, from the multibillion-pound scheme as “nuts” and pressed for the Chancellor to reconsider.
“What we need is for Rishi (Sunak) to have a good look at this and ask officials to find a way of making it work,” Mr Cameron wrote last year.
The developments are the latest in a lobbying controversy that has dogged the Conservative former prime minister in recent weeks.
Mr Cameron said that “many of the allegations” made “are not correct” as he challenged what he said is was a “false impression” that Mr Greensill was a key member of his team while in No 10.
He insisted Mr Greensill was “not a political appointee” and had been brought in by the late cabinet secretary Lord Heywood.
“The truth is, I had very little to do with Lex Greensill at this stage – as I recall, I met him twice at most in the entirety of my time as prime minister,” Mr Cameron said.
He also said that the remuneration in shares for Greensill are “nowhere near the amount speculated in the press” after their worth was suggested to be in the dozens of millions.
Mr Cameron sought to defend the use of his profile as a former prime minister to lobby his successors in government on behalf of Greenhill, which hired him as an adviser in August 2018.
“I thought it was right for me to make representations on behalf of a company involved in financing a large number of UK firms. This was at a time of crisis for the UK economy, where everyone was looking for efficient ways to get money to businesses,” Mr Cameron argued.
Mr Greensill was understood to have written to Mr Hancock’s office about the payment scheme in August 2019, copying in NHS England chairman Lord Prior, before the Health Secretary commissioned advice from officials.
An ally of Mr Hancock confirmed a drink took place between Mr Cameron, the Health Secretary and the Australian financier in October 2019.
Mr Greensill’s firm at the time wanted to introduce a flexible scheme to pay doctors and nurses either daily or weekly.
NHS SBS, a joint venture between the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) and a French IT firm, went on to announce in October last year that Earnd, a mobile app that was then a division of Greensill, would be available free-of-charge to NHS employees to access their pay.
Mr Hancock had referred Mr Greensill to work directly with the NHS rather than his department, according to the ally, who insisted the final decision to use the scheme was for local NHS employers.
“Matt acted in entirely the correct way – he updated officials on the business that was discussed, as is appropriate,” the friend said.
A DHSC spokesman said: “The wellbeing of NHS staff is the top priority of the department and Health Secretary.
“Our approach was and is that local NHS employers are best placed to decide how different pay flexibilities fit with their overall pay and reward offer for their staff.”
Meanwhile, it was understood that Mr Cameron’s message to the Prime Minister’s adviser was forwarded on to the Treasury.
But it could not be immediately confirmed whether the lobbying did lead to the Treasury reconsidering its move to reject the loan scheme application.
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A No 10 spokesman: “Throughout the pandemic, an immense number of businesses contacted Downing Street with representations; these were passed on to relevant departments.”
Labour called for Mr Sunak to “come out of hiding” and make a statement to Parliament about the “growing scandal”, and reiterated demands for an investigation.
Shadow chief secretary to the treasury Bridget Phillipson said: “Every day brings fresh revelations about the culture of cronyism at the heart of this Conservative Government.
“Through David Cameron, Greensill looks to have had the run of Government from Number 10 down, including access to millions of pounds of public money.”
Labour MP Dame Margaret Hodge, a former chair of the Commons Public Accounts Committee, said: “We need an independent inquiry immediately. The whole scandal stinks.”