David Cameron was accused of having “egg on his face” last night after he was filmed telling the Queen that Nigeria and Afghanistan were “possibly the two most corrupt countries in the world”.
The Prime Minister singled the two nations out as the worst offenders among the “fantastically corrupt” countries being represented at an anti-corruption summit he has convened in London this week.
He was filmed on a broadcast camera making the comments as he chatted with the Queen, the Archbishop of Canterbury and House of Commons Speaker John Bercow at a Buckingham Palace event to mark the monarch’s 90th birthday.
Downing Street made clear Mr Cameron knew he was being filmed and downplayed the significance of the remarks, pointing out that the leaders of both countries had acknowledged the scale of the problem they faced.
However, Nigeria’s president Muhammadu Buhari said his government was deeply “shocked and embarrassed” and a spokesman for the Afghan embassy said the comments were “unfair”. Mr Buhari and Afghanistan’s president Ashraf Ghani have written essays for a book accompanying the summit.
Mr Ghani, Downing Street said, acknowledges in his piece that Afghanistan is “one of the most corrupt countries on Earth”, and Mr Buhari that corruption became a “way of life” in his country under “supposedly accountable democratic governments”.
Labour likened the episode to a previous gaffe, when Mr Cameron was caught revealing how the Queen “purred” with pleasure when he told her Scotland had voted to remain in the UK.
MP Wes Streeting said: “This is another gaffe from the PM – you’d hope he’d have learned his lesson when it comes to off-the-record comments and the Queen but sadly not.
“The fact that David Cameron has egg on his face shouldn’t deflect from the more serious issue: for all his talk about corruption, he’s failing to act. If the PM really is serious about tackling corruption at the summit this week he needs to get his own house in order and make good on his promise to deliver public registers of beneficial ownership for the UK Crown dependencies and overseas territories.”
Mr Cameron said the summit had been discussed at a “very successful” Cabinet meeting earlier.
The Archbishop, the Most Rev Justin Welby, is heard to intervene in the conversation to make clear that “this particular [Nigerian] president” is not himself corrupt.
Mr Bercow is also heard making a joke about the summit, quipping: “They are coming at their own expense, one assumes?”
After some laughter, Mr Cameron answers: “Yes … because it’s an anti-corruption summit, everything has to be open, so there are no sort of closed-door sessions, it’s all in front of the press.
“It’s going to be … it could be quite interesting. But anyway…”
Anti-corruption movement Transparency International ranked Afghanistan as 166th and Nigeria 136th out of 168 countries and territories in its Corruption Perceptions Index for 2015.
Asked whether Mr Cameron regretted his comment, a Downing Street spokesman said: “Both leaders have been invited to the summit because they are driving the fight against corruption in their countries. The UK stands shoulder to shoulder with them as they do so.”
He made clear that Mr Cameron was aware that he was being filmed at the time he spoke, telling reporters: “The cameras were very close to him. There were multiple cameras in the room.”
The director of policy at development charity ActionAid, Alison Holder, said: “We desperately need action to stop tax havens fuelling tax dodging and corruption.
“Nigeria has signed up to new rules to publicly reveal who owns shell companies. David Cameron has a fantastic opportunity to demand the same transparency from British overseas tax havens at this Thursday’s anti-corruption summit.”
The deputy chief executive of the development charity One, Adrian Lovett, said: “David Cameron knows that even the ‘fantastically corrupt’ can’t do what they do without some help.
“He is right to flag that these countries experience high levels of corruption.
“But I hope he will be just as tough this week on the flaws in the global financial system that allow the corrupt to stash their money under our noses, often in Britain’s own overseas territories.”