LONDON — Not many former British prime ministers adapt easily to life after 10 Downing Street or gain the respect afforded to some ex-leaders around the world.
But few have fallen as far and as fast as David Cameron, who on Thursday made his first public appearance since a lobbying scandal cast a harsh light on his character and judgment, as well as the shifting morals of British public life.
Mr. Cameron’s embarrassment is particularly surprising because more than a decade ago and before becoming prime minister, he himself had warned that a crisis over lobbying was the “next big scandal waiting to happen” following an outcry over lawmakers’ expenses.
“We all know how it works,” Mr. Cameron said in a speech in 2010. “The lunches, the hospitality, the quiet word in your ear, the ex-ministers and ex-advisers for hire, helping big business find the right way to get its way.”
Appearing via video link before a parliamentary committee, Mr. Cameron showed little contrition over the approaches he made at the start of the pandemic to those in the highest reaches of government, appealing for help for Greensill Capital, a struggling finance company that then employed him.
Mr. Cameron’s frenetic lobbying — including a blizzard of more than 60 texts, emails and other messages — ultimately failed, as did Greensill Capital, whose financial difficulties endangered thousands of jobs, prompting a series of inquiries.
During Thursday’s hearing, Mr. Cameron kept his cool and rejected as “absurd” reports that he stood to make tens of millions of dollars from options on Greensill shares. Refusing to give details he nonetheless conceded that he had a “serious economic interest” in its success, was paid “generously” and earned more than his previous salary as prime minister. Nor did he deny using the company’s private jet to fly to his vacation home in Cornwall.
The release of messages earlier this week revealed the extent to which the ex-prime minister, who resigned in 2016, was willing to ingratiate himself with former staff and colleagues — including one with whom he had fallen out spectacularly a few years earlier.
“I know you are manically busy — and doing a great job,” wrote Mr. Cameron to Michael Gove, a senior cabinet minister in one text stressing that he was “on this number and v free.”
Ahead of a referendum in 2016 Mr. Gove’s decision to support Brexit infuriated Mr. Cameron who, in memoirs published in 2019, accused his colleague of behaving “appallingly” and wrote: “As for Michael, one quality shone through: disloyalty.”
In the messages sent last year, Mr. Cameron also told the chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, he was “doing a great job” — and made sure that senior officials knew about his contacts with Mr. Sunak.
“See you with Rishi’s for an elbow bump or foot tap. Love Dc,” Mr. Cameron signed off one message to Tom Scholar, the most senior civil servant at the Treasury.
On Thursday Angela Eagle, an opposition lawmaker described Mr. Cameron’s barrage of messages as “more like stalking than lobbying,” and the news media reaction has been merciless.
“In the scores of cringe-worthy WhatsApp messages and texts toadying up to just about everyone in his contacts book, Cameron proves himself to be not just venal and pushy but an out-and-out national embarrassment. Which is saying a lot, given Boris Johnson is now in charge,” wrote Judith Woods in the right-leaning Daily Telegraph. She seemed to be referring to allegations Prime Minister Boris Johnson broke electoral rules in the underhanded way he was said to have financed a pricey refurbishment of his apartment.
Mr. Cameron resigned after taking the fatal gamble that he could persuade Britons to vote against Brexit in the 2016 referendum, leaving himself unexpectedly out of a job.
Relatively young when he left Downing Street at age 49, Mr. Cameron initially kept a low profile, buying a designer shed for himself where he retreated to write his memoirs and following the letter of the law that prevents former politicians entering business for two years. When he later joined Greensill Capital, he was not obliged to observe the transparency obligations imposed on external professional lobbyists because he was employed directly by the company.
While former prime ministers do not have a clear role in public life, analysts are still surprised by the choices made by Mr. Cameron.
“Given how much money former prime ministers can make with speechmaking currently, you would have thought they wouldn’t be reduced to this,” said Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London. “I think we have evidence here of declining standards. You cannot imagine Margaret Thatcher doing this.”
Last month Mr. Cameron admitted visiting Saudi Arabia in January 2020, a little over a year after the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi and meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who American intelligence agencies say ordered the killing. In a statement made in April Mr. Cameron insisted that he took the opportunity to raise human rights issues.
On Thursday, Mr. Cameron explained his barrage of texts as a consequence of the urgency of the situation but conceded that, with hindsight, he should have made his approaches by formal letters or emails. He believed Greensill was offering good ideas to the government, Mr. Cameron said, denying that his lobbying was motivated his by financial interest.
Greensill pitched itself as an intermediary between the government and payees, offering to accelerate payments to businesses and individuals. In the case of individuals, Mr. Cameron defended the practice as a sort of populist alternative for some people to usurious payday-lending schemes. But the bulk of the lending was aimed at companies doing business with the government, and critics always questioned the wisdom of using an outside finance firm rather than simply speeding up government payments.
Professor Bale said that it was hard to think of any similarly overt lobbying of ministers from a former prime minister, not even Tony Blair, who was much criticized for his consultancy work.
“It is illustrative of a decline in standards because it used to be the case that this kind of thing ‘wasn’t done’ — and now it is,” Professor Bale said. The silver lining, he added, was that “the embarrassment caused to David Cameron might put some of his successors off.”