LONDON — David Cameron, the former British prime minister, is to face a formal investigation into his business dealings after revelations that he lobbied former colleagues by text message and over drinks on behalf of an Anglo-Australian finance firm.
Downing Street announced the review on Monday after weeks of publicity about claims that Mr. Cameron, who stepped down as prime minister in 2016, had approached cabinet ministers on behalf of the firm, Greensill Capital, which has now collapsed.
Mr. Cameron was a friend and rival of the current prime minister, Boris Johnson — first at Eton College, Britain’s most famous high school, then at Oxford University and finally within the Conservative Party, which they both went on to lead.
The allegations come at a sensitive moment for Mr. Johnson, whose government has been accused of cronyism and favoritism toward Conservative Party supporters in awarding lucrative contracts during the coronavirus crisis.
“The pandemic has raised the stakes on ethics in public life,” said Hannah White, deputy director of the Institute for Government, a think tank, who once ran an official committee on standards.
“Not only is it more important for lobbying to be transparent during a time of emergency when government has deliberately suspended normal rules on procurement and public appointments in order to respond at speed,” she said, “but the idea of politicians benefiting from the crisis by lining their pockets is particularly offensive.”
The lobbying review will be led by Nigel Boardman, a lawyer and nonexecutive board member of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. He will investigate the development and use of supply chain finance — a financial tool offered by Greensill — as well as the engagement of business with government, Downing Street said on Monday.
Experts do not believe that Mr. Cameron broke any rules, because he waited for more than two years after leaving government before undertaking any lobbying. Moreover, he was employed by Greensill and was therefore not obliged to observe the transparency obligations imposed on external professional lobbyists.
However, the furor over his behavior suggests that the rules themselves may be insufficient.
After weeks of silence, Mr. Cameron issued a statement late Sunday in which he conceded that although his behavior was in line with codes of conduct and government rules, he should have done things differently.
Mr. Cameron also 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. But he insists that he took the opportunity to raise human rights issues.
Of his dealings with the British government, Mr. Cameron acknowledged mistakes in contacting ministers informally.
“I have reflected on this at length. There are important lessons to be learned,” he wrote in the lengthy statement. “As a former prime minister, I accept that communications with government need to be done through only the most formal of channels, so there can be no room for misinterpretation.”
Perhaps of all people, Mr. Cameron should not have needed to learn that particular lesson.
More than a decade ago, just before becoming prime minister, he 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.”
According to British news media reports, that is precisely the sort of influence peddling Mr. Cameron undertook when he texted the chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, in a failed attempt to win emergency loans for Greensill after it ran into financial trouble.
Mr. Cameron is also reported to have organized a private drink with the health secretary, Matt Hancock, as part of earlier efforts to promote Greensill’s role within the country’s National Health Service.
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.
Documents leaked to some British news outlets revealed opposition from some civil servants who thought it better to focus on speeding up the government’s systems rather than involve a private-sector third party. The government argues that Mr. Sunak rejected the overture from Greensill and that the lobbying was unsuccessful.
Mr. Cameron’s behavior partly reflects the way in which Britain tends to cast former prime ministers into the political wilderness rather than finding useful roles for them. Aged 49 when he resigned after he called, and lost, the 2016 referendum on Brexit, Mr. Cameron was left — like many of his predecessors — with no real role.
But Gordon Brown, Mr. Cameron’s immediate predecessor, was among those who struck a critical tone on Monday. “I don’t really think former ministers and prime ministers should be engaged in lobbying for particular commercial companies, when they are lobbying their successors whom they know very well and could have privileged access to,” Mr. Brown told the BBC.
“Lobbying in this commercial way could also be a stain on our democracy, and therefore an inquiry is completely appropriate,” he said.
Mr. Cameron’s connections to the firm date from his time as prime minister when the company’s founder, Lex Greensill, was brought into Downing Street as an unpaid business adviser by Jeremy Heywood, who was then the country’s most powerful civil servant but who died in 2018. Although Mr. Cameron said that as prime minister, he only met the financier on a couple of occasions, Mr. Greensill was given his own business card and a government email account.
So even if the new review clears Mr. Cameron of wrongdoing as seems probable, experts think it is unlikely to vindicate the rules under which he was working.
“Cameron’s work for Greensill did not break any rules so he will likely be exonerated by the Boardman inquiry,” said Dr. White. “But for many people his actions do not pass the ‘smell test,’ which implies it is the rules that are in the wrong place,” she added.