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9 March 2019

The Moral Maze

Tag(s): Politics & Economics
The Moral Maze is an excellent programme on BBC Radio 4 which deals with moral dilemmas. Presented by the doyen of news reporters, Michael Buerk, it takes seemingly impossible ethical challenges that require the Wisdom of Solomon to solve. But I’m not sure if it has ever attempted to take on an issue which for me is becoming increasingly important. That is the question of whether leading politicians should be able to cash in on their fame when they lose office.

Enoch Powell said “all political careers end in failure”, and while that may be untrue as a generalisation it is true in the majority of cases. If we take the cases of those politicians who have been in leadership positions in the recent past we find a common pattern.

David Cameron took the decision to give a referendum on the question of the UK’s continuing membership of the European Union. As I have explained in these pages before I have it on impeccable authority that he never expected to win the 2015 General Election and put the promise of a referendum in the manifesto so that it could be conceded in coalition negotiations with the Liberal Democrats. This has recently been confirmed by Donald Tusk, President of the European Council. Cameron fell on his sword after losing the referendum leaving the Conservative Party to a chaotic leadership election with disturbing consequences. So what is he doing now?

Well, he is reported to be “bored (unprintable)”. He has completed his memoirs but of course can’t publish them until the Brexit process is complete. Good luck with that as that could be years off. In the meantime he is on the board of several organisations and is listed on the Washington Speakers Bureau as “one of the most prominent global influencers of the early 21st century”. I’m not sure if independent historians will agree with that in future biographies, but here’s the really thorny question. He spends most of his time with the UK-China Fund of which he has been Vice Chairman since 2017.

This is a private initiative started by Peter Gummer, Lord Chadlington, the PR guru. It seeks to raise $1bn for “investment in innovative, sustainable and consumption-driven growth opportunities in the UK, China and third markets to create employment and boost trade links, supporting the Belt and Road initiative.” Cameron’s appointment as Vice Chair was approved in December 2017 by the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (Acoba), a government body. Acoba ruled that Cameron could approach the UK government to discuss the terms on which he could “facilitate dialogue” between London and Beijing. It concluded that his previous role as prime minister would not “provide an unfair advantage to the fund”. But why else would Lord Gummer want Cameron as Vice Chair?  In fact it was reported later that Cameron had already met with Philip Hammond, the Chancellor to talk about China and shortly after that Hammond spoke positively about the fund as did his Chinese opposite number with whom Cameron had also discussed the idea. Acoba also ruled that Cameron could not be personally involved in lobbying the UK government on behalf of the UK-China Fund for two years after leaving government. But it would seem that he already had.

George Osborne, Chancellor until he was fired by Cameron’s successor, Theresa May, has lost little time in building an enormous portfolio, nine jobs in all. He is editor of the Russian/Saudi-owned London Evening Standard despite having no experience of journalism. It’s now a free newspaper which I pick up on my way home from London to do the crossword. There’s no point in reading the news stories as they consist mainly of thinly disguised attacks on Theresa May’s government, policies and personality. As an example I did read the editorial on the day Honda announced it was going to close its Swindon plant. Although Honda made it clear this was part of a global strategy and not influenced by Brexit the Evening Standard insisted this was not true. However, on the same day Honda also announced it was closing its Turkish plant. If it was about Brexit it would have announced it was moving to one of the other 27 EU members. In fact it has performed poorly in Europe and will be focused much more on the growing markets in Asia.

Osborne picks up £650,000 a year salary for advising Blackrock, the world’s largest asset manager. He also acts as an adviser to his brother Theo’s Silicon Valley venture capital firm, 9Yards Capital; a visiting fellow at the Hoover institution and a dean’s fellow at Stanford Business School. He is an Honorary Professor at the University of Manchester and is chairman of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership. He is also an adviser to Exor, an Italian holding company controlled by the Agnelli family which owns stakes in car manufacturers Fiat and Ferrari as well as Juventus football club.

It was recently reported that Osborne has purchased a chalet in the Swiss ski resort of Verbier for £3m.

Nick Clegg, Deputy Prime Minister in Cameron’s coalition government retained his seat in the 2015 General Election but resigned as leader of the Liberal Democrats as 49 of his colleagues lost their seats. He continues to claim the £115,000 annual expenses allowance previously reserved for prime ministers. This is intended to provide for the office and secretarial costs for former premiers. Recently Facebook hired Clegg as its head of global policy and communications at a reported seven-figure salary. Facebook is struggling to cope with mounting political pressure all over the globe over issues including fake news, data and the threat of government regulation. In some countries, as I have previously reported, Facebook is also implicated in child grooming, insurrection, terrorism, genocide and civil war.

While Clegg was deputy prime minister he spoke out about cracking down on tax avoidance by big companies. Facebook paid only £7.4m in tax last year in the UK despite recording £1.3bn in sales. His former colleague, Vince Cable, now the leader of the vastly diminished party, said he intended to write a letter to Clegg: ”I will be urging him to make sure Facebook cooperates with attempts to make sure they pay their fair share of taxes. That is the big policy issue.” Apparently Mark Zuckerberg took several months to recruit Clegg. It must indeed have been quite a dilemma for Clegg as two years ago he wrote in the Evening Standard “I’m not especially bedazzled by Facebook. I actually find the messianic Californian new-world-touchy-feely culture of Facebook a little grating.” Well, he his wife and their three sons have relocated to California and have bought a $9m mansion there.

One of Clegg’s former colleagues, Danny Alexander did lose his seat in the 2015 General Election. As Chief Secretary to the Treasury he was one of the four key ministers in the Coalition government along with Cameron, Osborne and Clegg. So how’s he getting on? Well, he’s following a similar play book. After accepting a knighthood Sir Danny has become the vice president and corporate secretary of the Asian Infrastructure Bank based in China. This was set up in 2016 with UK support, lending money to big projects. It is viewed by the United States as a competitor to the World Bank set up by the US and the other victor nations including the UK in the post war era. John Maynard Keynes played a big role in its creation along with the International Monetary Fund. Sir Danny landed the job even though the job description required “a minimum 20-25 years in a leadership function and position of influence in multilateral development bank(s) or equivalent.” Before entering the House of Commons in 2005 Alexander worked as a press officer for the Cairngorms national park.

This time Acoba approved the move without imposing the customary ban on former ministers lobbying government. They did impose a condition that Sir Danny must not exploit ‘privileged information’ he had gathered as Chief Secretary to the Treasury. But it admits it cannot enforce this ‘insider information’ rule not least because Sir Danny, his wife and two children have moved to live in diplomatic-style quarters in Beijing.

So after the humiliations of 2015 and 2016 the so-called ‘Quad’ of the Coalition government have all landed on well-padded feet. But their achievements pale into insignificance compared to two much bigger beasts in the post-political jungle.

Tony Blair and his wife Cherie have made a fortune in property owning numerous flats and houses. But through his trading company Tony Blair Associates (which is rather unfortunately abbreviated to TBA, which usually signifies To Be Advised) he has racked up vast earnings from consultancy contracts with large corporates as well as governments. He has combined this with a rather questionable role as a Middle East peace envoy while agreeing private contracts with several Middle Eastern dictators. Arguably this means he has never really stepped back from politics, at least on the world stage, and recently he has been active in trying to overthrow the result of the 2016 Brexit referendum. Estimates of the Blairs’ wealth vary from £20m to £100m. He claims it’s nearer £20m but that seems a little unlikely as their property wealth must account for most of that. Blair has also pulled in the same ex-PM’s allowance as Cameron and Clegg which in his case means well over £1 million to date.

Even more impressive has been the earning power of Bill and Hilary Clinton. When they left the White House in 2001 they had more than $1 million in debt and a net worth of nearly nothing. Since then they have earned more than $250 million before taxes. Bill gave his first speech less than three weeks after leaving office. Morgan Stanley paid $125,000 for the privilege but Bill soon doubled his average rate to $250,000, sometimes earning $500,000. By 2014 he had earned $100 million just from giving speeches.

His writing has also been highly lucrative. In 2004, he published his autobiography My Life, which became a No.1 New York Times bestseller[i]. Estimates of his earnings from writing reach over $40 million. The rest of their earnings come from consultancy, property and Hillary’s own earnings in public life as a Senator and Secretary of State.

While Bill Clinton’s earnings are colossal, they to my mind don’t appear to place him in the same moral maze as his British counterparts. If businesses like Morgan Stanley want to pay a former president a small fortune just for him speaking to their staff and/or clients then that’s up to them. Similarly if the public want to buy his books that’s also up to them. But all five of my British examples have taken coin from foreign-backed businesses or even foreign powers themselves. And the role of Acoba in failing to control the revolving door, often criticised in the pages of Private Eye, is highly questionable. Michael Buerk’s near namesake, Edmund Burke would be turning in his grave.

[i] I have read this as a friend gave it to me. It is interesting to note that nowhere does Mr Clinton mention the fact that in 1999 he put his name to the bill to repeal most of the Glass-Steagall Act which many experts believe led to the financial crisis of 2008.

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