PLUS: Hague calls for Belfast summit
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The Times and Sunday Times
Tuesday April 13 2021
Red Box
Patrick Maguire
By Patrick Maguire
Good morning,
The main characters of today's Red Box: David Cameron, William Hague and Boris Johnson. I've missed it being 2012.

Trivia question: The sad death of Shirley Williams leaves only seven surviving ministers from Harold Wilson's first Labour governments. Can you name them? Answer at the bottom of today's email
Patrick Maguire
Red Box Editor
Twitter icon @patrickkmaguire
The briefing
  • David Cameron has said he is prepared to give evidence to an independent inquiry into a lobbying scandal involving the former prime minister and the financier Lex Greensill.
  • All eyes now on Rishi Sunak, who faces an urgent question on his role in the affair in the Commons from 12.30pm. Or at least that's what Labour hoped: the government is sending Kwasi Kwarteng, business secretary, (or whichever of his junior ministers No 10 least like) to answer it instead.
  • SAD NEWS: Shirley Williams, the former Labour cabinet minister, founder of the SDP and Liberal Democrat peer has died at the age of 90. Her Times obituary is well worth a read.
  • In the House: After Labour's urgent question on the Greensill affair there's another, on China, from the Tory MP Tim Loughton to Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary. Then Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland secretary, is the last minister to run the gauntlet as he gives a statement on last week's violence.
Five things you need to know this morning
1. Inquiring minds
It was barely a fortnight ago that Conservative MPs on the Treasury select committee closed ranks and shut down opposition members who wanted to call in David Cameron before MPs to explain his lobbying for Greensill.

Then, Red Box remembers, the gist of their argument for doing so was that the scandal – such as any of them really believed it existed – had largely been confected by Labour. How times have changed.

This morning Cameron finds himself in an invidious position as the subject of the sort of independent inquiry that he might have commissioned as PM. Only he is no longer PM, Boris Johnson is, and he never got to cash in all those share options. Cameroon nightmares were once made of this.

Led by the solicitor Nigel Boardman, previously a senior partner at the City law firm Slaughter & May and a member of the board at the business department, the inquiry will examine the representations that Cameron and Greensill made to ministers and the contracts that were subsequently awarded.

A spokesman for Cameron said – there's a phrase nobody has written for a few weeks – that he welcomed the inquiry "and will be glad to take part".

He could hardly have said anything else. But it could be worse for the former PM. Boardman, whose old firm actually opposed his lobbying reforms, won't have legal powers to compel people to give evidence but he will be able to rifle through official papers and ask questions of both Cameron and the cabinet about their involvement with Greensill.

And, crucially, neither he nor the chancellor, who won't be answering these awkward questions in the Commons today, will be hauled over the coals in public.

Labour are still calling for a proper parliamentary inquiry, with Cameron and others giving evidence before MPs and the cameras. Red Box wonders whether Tory MPs will get away with resisting it for much longer.
    Read the full story >
    2. More questions
    As in comedy, timing is everything in politics. And as what increasingly feels like a proper Westminster lobbying scandal gathers pace (for the ex-ministers with well-paying consultancy jobs on Red Box's subscription list, read: moral panic), this morning's Times could not be worse-timed (sorry) for a Downing Street trying its best to get on the front foot.

    Two particularly awkward stories might run and run. The first: David Cameron (him again) faces new questions after Illumina, an American genomics giant for which he works as a paid adviser, was handed a £123 million contract with the Department of Health, a week after the former prime minister appeared alongside Matt Hancock and one of the company's executives at a conference in September 2019 (pictured).

    Cameron denies lobbying on the company's behalf and a spokesman for Hancock's department said last night that the contract was awarded "in the proper way". Yet both face questions over just why their turn on stage was not recorded in official transparency returns. Somebody really ought to start filling those in.
    Read the full story >
    3. Unsteady Eddie?
    Our second scoop lands much closer to home than Boris Johnson would like: last night his close aide Lord Udny-Lister – known as Eddie Lister before his recent peerage – rejected a six-figure contract with Finsbury Glover Hering, the PR and lobbying firm.

    Lister, who was at the PM’s side in both City Hall and No 10 and and now works closely with Dominic Raab, Liz Truss and the national security adviser Stephen Lovegrove as special envoy on the Middle East, had been considering combining the appointment with his government work.

    Lister has rejected the gig (albeit only after being approached by The Times last night) and the lobbyists in question, who lobby on behalf of clients in the Middle East, insisted that Lister’s role at their lobbying firm would not involve any lobbying. However, that it was even being considered raises awkward questions for No 10 (who insist that the relevant codes of conduct were followed throughout).

    It is this sort of story that pushes that well-worn revolving door metaphor to its conceptual limit and, given that Lister also stayed on the payroll of two housing firms while working at No 10, Red Box has a feeling that hacks might find this seam a rich one.

    And while it’s tempting to see any inquiry into Cameron’s lobbying as a game of one-upmanship by the PM, stories like this underline an uncomfortable truth for everyone on Whitehall: plenty of people have questions to answer.
    Read the full story >
    4. Man of steel
    All very embarrassing for ministers, but could stories like this hurt the Tories at the ballot box? That’s Labour’s hope.

    This morning Dr Paul Williams, their candidate in Hartlepool, unveils a slick campaign video urging the government to save jobs at Liberty Steel, the metals giant pushed to the brink by Greensill’s collapse.

    Liberty employ hundreds of people in Hartlepool and for its mill to close in the middle of a by-election campaign that the Tories could well be on course to win is far from ideal.

    Sanjeev Gupta, Liberty’s embattled owner, made this point not terribly subtly in a Red Box piece last week. Boris Johnson himself has said that it would be “nuts” for the government to let the steel industry keel over. It might be time to prop it up.
    5. Hague on Belfast
    Announcing his arrival as a Times columnist last week, William Hague promised not to sugar the pill for his former colleagues. And his first piece, published this morning, does nothing of the sort.

    Yesterday Red Box wrote that ministers had serious reservations about hosting the Irish government for talks in Northern Ireland. So, naturally, Hague suggests: “An open-ended summit involving the prime minister, the Irish prime minister and all parties in the province is needed soon. Recent events there are not merely a reminder of the need for trust in EU-UK relations but something close to a final warning.”

    He also urges the PM to give the EU’s representative in London full diplomatic privileges and suggests a summit on foreign affairs in general and Russia in particular. “They are the equivalent of taking a bottle of wine round to your difficult neighbours and generously helping them to drink it.” Though last time the prime minister did that, didn’t he spill it on the sofa?
    Read the full story >
    Red Box: Comment
    Sir Ed Davey
    Shirley Williams’ legacy of inspiring young people will live on
    Sir Ed Davey – Lib Dem MP

    "Whether she was working to abolish the death penalty in the 1960s, transforming our education system in the 70s, or fighting to end nuclear proliferation in recent years, Shirley always focused on the real lives of those it would affect – even as she mastered the academic and philosophical debates behind these issues in a way few others could match. Shirley inspired me, just as she inspired so many young people throughout her career – and I know her legacy will continue to inspire many more in the future."

    Read the full article >
    John Walsh
    Roadmap for Irish border poll would stem political uncertainty
    John Walsh – Irish journalist
    Mark Garnier
    Countdown for ensuring Britain’s space programme takes off
    Mark Garnier – Conservative MP
    Siobhain McDonagh
    School catch-up needs drive of vaccine push, but Gavin Williamson incapable of leading it
    Siobhain McDonagh – Labour MP
    Ernest Moniz and Des Browne
    Johnson risks a nuclear rift with Joe Biden
    Ernest Moniz and Des Browne – Nuclear Threat Initiative
    The cartoon
    Today's cartoon in The Times is by Morten Morland
    Worth your time
    • Today we report that a majority of Britons want to decriminalise cannabis. Forget about it, says Hugo Rifkind: the best thing to do would be to legalise it instead.
    • In The Spectator, the arch-unionist Henry Hill is on excoriating form on Downing Street's "clueless" approach to Scotland.
    • In this morning's Times Scotland, Ciaran Martin, the UK government's lead civil servant during negotiations on the first independence referendum, argues that denying the SNP a second will turn Britain Spanish: a union that survives only through force of law...
    • ...which makes for an interesting companion piece to Alex Massie's latest, in which he argues that neither Nicola Sturgeon nor Boris Johnson can sensibly commit themselves to a vote that neither can be sure of winning.
    • Harry Lambert has a handy guide in the New Statesman to what a Labour loss in Hartlepool could mean for the rest of its remaining red wall MPs.
    • Never a truer word spoken than this line in a very entertaining notebook from Giles Coren: "There are two kinds of journalist in this world: the ones who see a massive news story as an opportunity to be at the centre of things, and the ones who see it as an opportunity to get away with doing nothing at all."
    • And Melanie Phillips offers a stern rebuke to the universities who decline to mark down spelling mistakes.
    • On Times Radio with Matt Chorley from 10am: Finkelvitch (Daniel Finkelstein and David Aaronovitch) remember Shirley Williams (10.30am); The Big Thing: Lord Saville, on public inquiries and Northern Ireland (11am); coffee break with Mariella Frostrup (11.35am); Midday Update: your indispensable half-hour bulletin; Sarah Beeney on a luxury home boom (12.35pm); If I Had A Day Off: Tory MP Stephen Hammond (12.40pm); Quiz: Can You Get To Number 10? (12.50pm).
    Only 11 per cent of you said that history would remember David Cameron as a good prime minister in yesterday's poll; 65 per cent of you went for bad. Maybe he should start lobbying Red Box readers.
    Today's trivia answer
    Trivia question: The sad death of Shirley Williams leaves only seven surviving ministers from Harold Wilson's first Labour governments. Can you name them?

    Answer: Roy Hattersley, Elystan Morgan, John Morris, David Owen, Bill Rodgers, Ted Rowlands and Dick Taverne. All are Labour peers apart from Taverne (who sits as a Lib Dem) and Owen (an independent social democrat).

    Thanks again to – you guessed it – Mr Memory.

    Send your trivia to
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