The current stramash over the ‘chumocracy’ that held sway during David Cameron’s premiership should surprise few people. After all, the House of Lords is currently bloated by cronies who enjoyed fast-track access to Downing Street. But the Rachel Whetstone affair does shine a spotlight on how privileged access works at the highest levels.
She has now quit her £1 million-plus job at Uber after information watchdogs opened an investigation into allegations that she was hired mainly because of her access to No 10. It
is also alleged that Cameron’s inner circle orchestrated a lobbying campaign to persuade the then-London Mayor Boris Johnson to protect the interests of the controversial, California-based taxi firm accused of driving out competition and paying virtually no taxes. Both Cameron and the then-Chancellor George Osborne texted Johnson to complain about tough new rules on Uber operations – curbs that were then promptly dropped. Whetstone’s resignation as Uber vice-president in charge of communications and public policy will not draw a line under what has become a PR meltdown.
She has form. Previously she was employed by Google, another US outfit notorious for its reluctance to pay taxes. Freedom of Information searches reveal that during her time there, search engine executives met Tory ministers at least once a month. To discuss what? No-one is saying, although it is a fair bet that the public outcry over (legal) tax avoidance may have been touched on.
So how did she enjoy such a privileged position in the Cameron Camelot? She first met Cameron and Osborne in Conservative Central Office during the Tory opposition years. She then became political secretary to then-Leader Michael Howard, someone who encouraged Cameron’s ambitions.
Whetstone married Cameron’s policy guru, Steve Hilton, and was godmother to the Camerons’ late son, Ivan. The two families lived seven miles from each other in leafy Oxfordshire, and met regularly for dinner parties in both homes, pub lunches and cosy fireside suppers. It may well have been a case of genuine friendship, and there is nothing wrong with that – provided no ulterior interests are invoked.
It may well also be that Whetstone’s access did not breach the letter of any rules of engagement, and we can be pretty sure that Cameron, Osborne and the rest sincerely believe there is nothing wrong with any of this. After all, Cameron and over half his Cabinet came to power via Eton or Oxbridge or both. The chief reason rich parents send their kids to public schools is for the contacts they make which can stand them in good stead when they embark on their careers in politics or business or both. That’s how they operate. They are personally immune to the stench of corruption, unlike the rest of us.
But it carried on after Cameron bowed out of Downing Street, battered by the outcome of the Brexit vote. As late as last December an official memo, also acquired under FoI, referred to a meeting between senior No 10 aide Daniel Korski, Johnson and Business Secretary Sajid Javid regarding ongoing lobbying to protect Uber’s interests.
One of the ironies of the whole affair is that much of the legwork to expose the whole whiffy business was done by the Daily Mail, hardly the newspaper of choice for Tribune readers. Their journalist Guy Adams wrote: ‘Quite why Downing Street thought this activity appropriate is anyone’s guess. Uber, after all, pays almost no UK tax, using creative accountants to funnel its earning to Bermuda via a so-called “double Dutch” structure, meaning it legally avoids paying
its fair share for the roads its services rely on. It has only around 100 employees in Britain, while many of its tens of thousands of drivers, who are in theory independent contractors, earn so little they have to rely on tax credits, placing further burden on the Exchequer.’
Anyone’s guess? Maybe, maybe not. But the cosy rottenness at the heart of Cameron’s laid-back administration has now been exposed.