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21 August 2020

How the Conservatives get away with drawing a line under scandals

There are groups in our society who get to choose when it’s time for the press and the public to move on from political rows. 

By Jonn Elledge

More than ten years ago something a public figure said annoyed me, and being an entirely normal and well-adjusted person I still think about it now. The offending comment came from Angela Knight, once a junior Treasury minister in the Major government, but by 2009 the chief executive of the British Bankers’ Association (BBA).

I would have some sympathy for her plight – there can’t be many roles in public life where the job is so clearly to be a target for public opprobrium as representing the interests of bankers in in the middle of the credit crunch – but I’m sure she was well rewarded for her trouble. Her next role was chief executive of Energy UK, in which she again had to go on Radio 4 in 2013 to defend the honour of another group of people who almost everyone hated, so maybe this is her thing.

Anyway. The thing that annoyed me so much was a speech she made at the BBA’s annual conference in June 2009. It was time for a truce between banks and financial regulators, she said: “The time has come to park this blame game and move on.”

This, remember, was barely nine months after the collapse of Lehman Brothers. The once-in-a-generation economic crisis, as we thought it was then – pause for hollow laughter – was not barely over, it was still happening. Austerity hadn’t even begun. The idea that it was time to move past silly indulgences such as “blame”, even before we knew the full consequences of what we were blaming banks for, seems ever so slightly arrogant.

More than that, her words seemed to imply a fundamental misreading of the relationship between bankers and regulators: it was not her place to decide when the industry had adequately paid for its mistakes. The whole thing was akin to a defendant asking the judge to suspend a trial, because so many people were finding it upsetting.

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[see also: Why the UK’s economic woes began long before Covid-19]

The reason I am thinking so much about 2009 – other than the fact that I was young then, and still had hope – is because the government and the Tory party are leaning on the same trick. Consider this quote that did the rounds about the Dominic Cummings Goes To Durham fiasco in May:

The PM told friends: ‘Dominic acted within the guidance and was simply caring for his family. I now consider the matter closed.’”

The parallel screams at you, doesn’t it? A powerful part of the British establishment decides that a plausible way of ending a prolonged period of bad press about the arrogant way it’s conducted itself is to arrogantly decree that it’s been punished enough. Just as it wasn’t for the bankers to decide when they had done enough to atone for the financial crisis, neither should it be for the Prime Minister to decide when his government has been held to account. But, in some sense, it was. The world moved on; Cummings remains in post.

[see also: The dangerous legacy of the Cummings affair]

Another example: the Chancellor Rishi Sunak has been under fire for the past few months because the financial support scheme he created to cover those who couldn’t work during lockdown managed to miss more than a million people. His trick for handling difficult questions about this has generally been to say that he empathises, before pivoting to how brilliant his scheme is for those who were covered by it. (“I’m sorry your house burned down. The good news is that many other people’s houses didn’t.”)

In July, Mel Stride, the Tory chair of the Treasury select committee, took him to task for all this. Check out the language that Stride used (emphasis mine) afterwards:

The Chancellor has effectively drawn a line under helping the million-plus people who have been excluded from support for four months.”

Stride is criticising the government; but he nonetheless accepts the premise that the Chancellor can decide when he’s finished. All these quotes carry the same assumption – that there are groups in our society who can choose when they have paid their dues and it’s time for the press and the public to move on. 

[see also: Why the government should consider extending the furlough scheme]

This is not a trick that is open to everyone. It requires a media in which the majority of newspapers are not instinctively hostile, and it’s hard to imagine a trade unionist or Labour frontbencher getting away with the same line. The Blair government threw erring ministers to the wolves in double-quick time for a reason: there was no other way to kill the story. For those pushing even mildly left-wing ideas, announcing that a story is over is likely to be greeted with howls of derision from the lobby. The Tories can do it with a straight face. 

The reason that Angela Knight quote stays with me all these years later, other than the obvious fact I’m fundamentally maladjusted, is because of what it revealed about how bankers thought of themselves. They imagined themselves to be regulators’ peers, not their subjects. They could help set the terms of debate. 

Eleven years on, the government thinks it gets a say in how much scrutiny it receives; that it can choose when the story moves on. This doesn’t seem particularly healthy, does it?

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