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16 August 2021

Boris Johnson has turned the UK government into a hypocritical and shameless chumocracy

The Prime Minister and his allies are not champions of ordinary people, but of an ultra-rich elite that enjoys privileged access.

By Martin Fletcher

Another day, another revelation, here in the Banana Republic of Great Britain. On 11 August the Daily Telegraph reported how the casino-owner Damian Aspinall, having failed to win the government’s support for his plan to buy a South African game reserve, put Carrie Johnson on the payroll of his animal conservation charity.

Also on 11 August, the Times reported that a US biotech company, Illumina, won a £123m contract after David Cameron, a paid adviser there, lobbied Matt Hancock, the then health secretary, to attend a conference attended by Illumina’s chief executive. The contract was awarded a week after the conference, without a tender process.

On 9 August the BBC reported that in return for relentlessly pestering his former colleagues in government, Cameron earned about $10m – more than most people earn in their lifetimes – from Greensill Capital before its collapse. As prime minister, Cameron had given Lex Greensill access to top ministers and civil servants so Greensill could flog a questionable supply-chain financing scheme.

Those reports came soon after revelations about Ben Elliot’s shenanigans were published in the Financial Times and Sunday Times. We learned that Elliot, Boris Johnson’s appointee as Conservative Party co-chairman, and a fellow Old Etonian, has been arranging secretive regular meetings with the Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak and other top ministers for an “advisory board” of donors, some of whom reportedly give £250,000 a year to party coffers. He even promised one, Mohamed Amersi, influence over the government’s Middle East policies.

The FT also revealed in July that the property sector has given the Conservative Party nearly £18m since Johnson became prime minister two years ago – this at a time when the government is proposing to rip up the country’s restrictive planning laws. And so the litany of distinctly malodorous transactions goes on.

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There were all those lucrative pandemic-related contracts that were awarded without any competitive tender process to jewellers, pest controllers, confectionery companies, Hancock’s former local pub landlord, Dominic Cummings’s mates and many more. The government even set up a “VIP lane” for well-connected bidders, and those who used it were ten times more likely to be successful. The government has repeatedly refused to identify them.

There was Robert Jenrick’s approval, as Housing Secretary, of a Tory donor’s £1bn London Docklands development project – just in time for the donor, Richard Desmond, to avoid a £45m levy payable to London’s poorest borough, Tower Hamlets. 

There was Peter Cruddas’s gift of £500,000 to the Conservative Party, less than a week after Johnson had elevated him to the House of Lords, despite objections from the upper chamber’s independent Appointments Commission.

There was the opaque financing by wealthy supporters of Johnson’s Downing Street flat, and of his holiday in Mustique in December 2019 and January 2020. Nor should we forget, although Johnson would very much like us to, his channelling of £100,000 in public money to a firm run by his alleged former lover, Jennifer Arcuri.

All prime ministers and governments reward supporters with jobs, access and peerages. All political parties rely on wealthy donors, be they individuals, lobbying groups or trade unions. But I struggle to remember a prime minister or ruling party that did so as shamelessly, and on such an industrial scale, as Johnson’s Conservatives. 

What they are doing is more than mere sleaze or cronyism – it is borderline corruption. They are giving the ultra-rich access to the very heart of government, prompting the FT to ask: “Is the UK’s democracy for sale?” And when they’re caught out, they simply shrug, obfuscate, stonewall, profess ignorance, brazen it out or change the subject. What they never do is apologise, resign or express the slightest contrition.

Their conduct is not just deeply inimical to good governance, and corrosive of public confidence in democracy. It is also stunningly hypocritical. 

Johnson and his colleagues won power and secured Brexit by denouncing the “metropolitan elite” and posing as champions of ordinary people. It turns out that they are not champions of ordinary people at all, but of “access capitalism”, and of a very small and select elite indeed. 

Those “Red Wall” voters who lent Johnson their votes at the last election should ask themselves whose interests the Prime Minister is really concerned about when he takes key decisions on policies and spending. Is it those of blue-collar workers living in Hartlepool, Sunderland and Stoke-on-Trent, or those of the billionaires – many of them foreign-born, tax exiles or non-doms – who furtively bankroll him and his party?

We are never told when and where the mega-rich meet Johnson, Sunak, et al, or what they discuss, or what inside information they receive and what favours they demand in return for their largesse. But it is hard to believe that they are motivated by altruism, or a desire to improve the commonweal, or that issues such as levelling up, state intervention and helping the disadvantaged are at the top of their agenda.