It’s hardly surprising that chancellor Rishi Sunak‘s appearance before the Treasury Select Committee was weak, with him missing key answers to far too many questions around the now-collapsed financial services company Greensill Capital.
From trailing off as he was pressed on that most crucial of issues – how much taxpayer money was at risk – to his insinuation that it is unreasonable for the financial interests of ministers to be scrutinised, there was little to commend him.
It’s not surprising that Sunak, along with other Tory Ministers, would want to distance himself from the Greensill scandal – the chancellor said that the he spent “a very small amount of my time” considering a request for Greensill to receive financial aid before it was rejected. He denied that special treatment was given to the company following lobbying by former prime minister David Cameron. The claims were called ”not credible” by the committee chair Mel Stride.
This scandal isn’t just important because of the millions of pounds of taxpayers money and thousands of jobs put at risk. It’s also important because it tells a bigger story – about who this government prioritises in running our economy.
When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, one in four families had less than £100 in the bank. Around 3.6m people were trapped in insecure work. Our hospitals and schools were overstretched and their staff underpaid.
Money is not being spent wisely and well. Instead, poorly managed outsourcing and contracts are leaving services threadbare, while the pockets of some Tories’ friends are bulging.
While nurses faced a real-terms pay cut after fighting Covid on the frontline, those who could call upon Conservative ministers were toasting their profits.
While it matters that Rishi Sunak voted against a pay rise for nurses, what is more important is the door that he helped open for Greensill into the heart of government. It was Sunak who exchanged multiple messages with David Cameron, and it was he who allowed so many meetings to be set up on behalf of Greensill.
While Cameron’s lobbying efforts failed, the firm still had access to the Coronavirus Large Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CLBILS) – giving Greensill the right to dispense government-backed Covid-19 loans to companies.
Why was Greensill given access to CLBILS after there were so many internal discussions about the suitability of the corporate financing facility? Why, after concerns were raised by Treasury officials, was the firm still given access to the scheme? What did the chancellor know about who else was looking into Greensill, and the known issues with its performance and model?
Sunak’s response to all of these questions was weak and insubstantial.
In the end, the Greensill scandal symbolises who the Tories cherish the most. The Tory friends and donors who win Covid contracts. The Conservatives who want to make a hasty million as PPE middlemen. The people who have the personal mobile numbers of the chancellor and the prime minister.
Imagine if, instead, this government’s priorities included properly supporting businesses that pay their fair share, rather than leaving them undercut on our high streets.
Supporting our schools which have already done so much and need to do even more, as we look to support children to catch up after a long and difficult year.
Resourcing our hospitals and the amazing staff who keep them running as they address a mounting backlog and prepare us for the challenges to come.
These – along with respect for every pound of taxpayers’ money – are Labour’s priorities for our economy.
The chancellor’s weak answers on Greensill make it clear they aren’t his.
Bridget Phillipson is shadow chief secretary to the Treasury and the Labour MP for Houghton and Sunderland South