Photo by Dan Kitwood

Conflict of interest

Nigel Boardman’s inquiry into the Greensill Affair squanders the opportunity for real reform

Artillery Row

When a major national scandal breaks and you want an all-round independent inquiry, you would send for a judge. Yet No 10 chose Nigel Boardman of Slaughter & May, a former Conservative party candidate, as the man to review the aftermath of the snarled Greensill Affair.

Boardman’s potential conflicts of interest are legion, including his presence on the Board of Arbuthnot Bank when it recently gave substantial donations to the Conservative Party. He was a member of the Board of the Business Department (BEIS) when it allowed the British Business Bank to give Greensill Capital access to the Coronavirus Large Business Interruption Loan Scheme. He was also appointed to the Board of the British Museum by David Cameron, another key player in the drama. 

Boardman also has form, which no doubt made him popular with No 10. He carried out a rather tepid investigation of the PPE purchase scandal in his role as a Non-Executive Director of BEIS. Ironically, one of the criticisms that Boardman makes in his Greensill report is that “the process for clearing the conflicts [in Greensill’s role in Government] appears in this case to be lacking”.

It is the civil servants who emerge as the villains of the piece

This was the inquiry that the Prime Minister said would have carte blanche and “maximum possible access” to the relevant staff and documents. It was designed to “cleanse the Augean stables”. This is not the only inquiry into Greensill. There are also investigations by the Treasury Select Committee, the Public Affairs and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office. The Official Receiver may get involved, too. It is unfortunate that these could not have been combined under a senior judge. 

Excessive lobbying was at the heart of the concerns. Yet it is the civil servants who emerge, from his 141 page closely typed report, as the villains of the piece. The same happened in the recent Geidt Report on the Prime Minister and the No 10 refurbishment. The Boardman Report focuses in particular on the deceased Lord Heywood, the former Cabinet Secretary, and his approving the appointment of Greensill to Government office. He had worked alongside Greensill at Morgan Stanley. It seems Francis (now Lord) Maude played a crucial role in approving the appointment when he was Minister for the Cabinet Office. Boardman lets Maude get away with saying that he could not recall approving the appointment, although he said he was aware of it. I doubt a judge would have left it at that.

Lord Heywood

Sadly, of course, Lord Heywood cannot speak for himself. His widow sought to put representations. In other inquiries, the families of those who have died since the incidents under review, were interviewed during the course of the inquiry. Boardman only gave Lady Heywood a meeting at the end of the process, as she made clear in a powerful presentation on the Today programme. He agreed to meet her just a few days before the Report was published, and he simply read out his conclusions to her. She has also told me that he made clear in several direct emails that he was not interested in reviewing her written submissions. 

This is markedly different from the approach taken by the former Supreme Court Judge Lord Dyson when investigating the Martin Bashir interview of Princess Diana. He allowed the widow of Steve Hewlett (the Producer of Panorama at the time of the interview) to make representations throughout the process. In the Bloody Sunday Inquiry, which was of course different in that it was a full public inquiry before a judge, the families of victims and soldiers were allowed to make representations and given legal aid.

Perhaps this is why Boardman says somewhat defensively in the Introduction that he did not have time for a “forensic interrogation of every detail of the issues”, and that he has only established the “facts as far as possible”. The Report so far is only the factual part of the Inquiry; the recommendations will follow later, but it is not hard to detect from the text what they are likely to be.

Privileged access

All parties would no doubt agree with how the Report begins: “Mr Greensill had a privileged – and sometimes extraordinarily privileged – relationship with Government”, which must concern politicians as much as civil servants. Further, on the appointment of Greensill to Government, Boardman rightly says, “the process should be more clearly delineated and requires greater transparency to maintain public confidence.”

The conflicts when Greensill was in the Government tent (whether as Special Adviser or special advisor) were palpable. It is extraordinary that presentations on supply chain finance for the round table with government’s major private sector suppliers, chaired by David Cameron as Prime Minister, were largely written by Mr Greensill (who obviously had a commercial imperative). These presentations were “not balanced”, as Boardman found. It is also clear that many civil servants had real doubts about the whole supply chain finance proposition for Government and the access which Greensill obtained. 


Boardman’s should have been the overarching inquest. The chumocracy is apparent

Boardman misses an opportunity in relation to lobbying and appears not to understand what is wrong with that closed world. He takes a surprisingly lax view on the need for further restriction given the concern about the pressure put on ministers and civil servants in relation to coronavirus funding when Greensill was in trouble; in fact, Boardman (along with many clients of his law firm) thinks that lobbying is a rather good thing, opining that “it can provide decision makers with insights and data and enables government to understand the impact of public policy on those it may affect”. Like the Ritz, lobbying is not open to all; only the rich and powerful can afford sophisticated lobbying, whilst the poor have to rely on a vote every five years. To conclude that as far as lobbying is concerned, “the current system and those operating within it worked well” is a somewhat surprising conclusion from reviewing the Greensill Affair.

The Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act in 2014 was a mouse reform of lobbying (which Cameron rightly saw as the next big problem after MP’s expenses). It did not catch the lobbying by David Cameron. It needs proper attention and is presently going through post legislative scrutiny. 

It does not appear that Boardman will make any radical recommendations on this, or on the presently very weak Advisory Committee on Business Appointments Rules either. This is a real lost opportunity. 

Boardman is in his element (and cannot be bettered) in his description and analysis of supply chain finance. Particularly striking is this email from Jeremy Heywood to those beneath him in rank: “Lex and I have been working on this stuff on and off for five years. It is a HUGE frustration that HMG continues to leave free money on the table in this way…” On the contrary, Boardman concludes, “it is very unlikely that supply chain finance has a role in direct government commercial activity.” 

The cases left unaddressed

David Cameron emerges unscathed from the Boardman process. Cameron says that he met Greensill only twice whilst Prime Minister. Boardman simply notes that Cameron himself accepted that his methods of communication in lobbying “were in hindsight not the right way for a former Prime Minister to engage with Government”. Boardman says no more.

One other area overlooked by the Report is the role of Rishi Sunak and the degree to which he put pressure on the Treasury to pass loans from coronavirus schemes for Greensill. Sunak himself says he had “pushed the team” to see if it were possible for Greensill to qualify for support. Boardman simply includes a very long letter from Sunak and does not weigh up the facts and balance the evidence as a judge would have done.

Boardman’s should have been the overarching inquest. The chumocracy is apparent. Standards in public life are slipping as revealed in the report, whilst the standards of report writing are also slipping.

Clearly in terms of the bigger picture, it is important that the border between public and private sector should be porous, but conflicts of interest must be addressed. They could hardly be addressed by someone with so many potential conflicts of his own. 

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