With the prime minister’s support, a City whiz kid is secretly awarded privileged access to top civil servants so he can flog a dubious money-making scheme that diminishes the government’s obligations to pay contractors on time.
Later, after the prime minister leaves office, the whiz kid employs him as an adviser – and gives him stock options that are potentially worth tens of millions of pounds until the company runs into trouble. The former prime minister then privately lobbies the chancellor of the exchequer for hundreds of millions of pounds in taxpayer-funded loans to save the business from collapse.
That, according to the Sunday Times, is allegedly what David Cameron did. It looks and smells like a scandal, but I’ll wager that Boris Johnson’s government contemptuously ignores demands for an independent inquiry. That is because we live in an age when public figures are no longer held to account for their conduct, no longer feel shame or contrition, and simply brazen scandals out.
For the first time in my life, I find myself wondering whether I live in a corrupt country of the sort that Britain once regarded with pity and disdain.
The weekend’s newspapers also brought fresh revelations about our present Prime Minister. Jennifer Arcuri told the Sunday Mirror that she was having an affair with Johnson, then London mayor, at the same time as he was including her on taxpayer-funded trade missions, and giving grants to her technology company. He will, of course, flatly deny any impropriety and move on.
Last November the National Audit Office revealed that Johnson’s government awarded £10.5bn worth of pandemic-related contracts without a competitive tender process, and that companies with the right political connections were ten times as likely to win them. Ministers have unlawfully refused to publish a full list, but we know contracts for personal protective equipment went to jewellers, pest controllers and confectionery companies. A contract for glass vials went to the former landlord of Matt Hancock’s local pub. An £840,000 contract to “test coronavirus messaging” went to Public First, a company run by close associates of Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings. All that is frankly outrageous, but Johnson just shrugs it off.
Robert Jenrick, the Housing Secretary, remains in post despite approving a Tory donor’s £1bn property development plan that had been rejected by Tower Hamlets council and the government’s planning inspectorate – and doing so just in time for the donor, Richard Desmond, to avoid a £45m levy payable to London’s poorest borough.
Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, was found guilty of bullying her civil servants in a flagrant breach of the ministerial code. She did not resign, but Alex Allan, the prime minister’s independent adviser on ministerial standards, did after Johnson refused to sack her or publish his full report.
Johnson gives jobs, as well as lucrative contracts, to cronies. Putting Dido Harding, a former business leader and the wife of a Tory MP, in charge of the NHS Test and Trace programme, and Kate Bingham, who is married to a Treasury minister, in charge of the vaccine task force are just a couple of examples.
Peter Riddell, the independent commissioner for public appointments, warned last November that “some at the centre of government want not only to have the final say but to tilt the system in their favour to appoint their allies”, and that “I have on a number of occasions had to resist… attempts by ministers to appoint people with clear party affiliations” to senior posts. The government has also been “packing the composition of interview panels with allies”, he said.
Johnson’s cronies get peerages, too, among them his brother Jo Johnson, the former Conservative party treasurer Peter Cruddas, the Tory donors Michael Spencer and Aamer Sarfraz, various Vote Leave stalwarts and Evgeny Lebedev, the owner of the Evening Standard and the Independent. In 2013 an Appeal Court judge ruled that Cruddas had sold access to Cameron, and Johnson elevated him despite objections from the independent Lords Appointments Commission.
Last summer the Intelligence and Security Committee published, albeit in redacted form, a report on Russian interference in British politics following nine months of delays. “Russian influence in the UK is the new normal,” it stated. “Successive governments have welcomed the oligarchs and their money with open arms, providing them with a means of recycling illicit finance through the London ‘laundromat’, and connections at the highest level with access to UK companies and political figures.”
That alarming conclusion was also ignored by a Prime Minister who once raised £160,000 for Tory Party coffers by playing tennis with the wife of one of President Putin’s former ministers.
Johnson’s is not the first government to be accused of sleazy practices, of course. But it has taken them to new levels – and shown an unprecedented shamelessness and lack of contrition when caught.
Gone are the days when David Blunkett resigned as home secretary for the relatively trivial offence of allegedly fast-tracking a visa application for his lover’s nanny, or when Peter Mandelson resigned as trade secretary for failing to register a loan from a ministerial colleague. Last summer Cummings survived as Johnson’s chief adviser despite blatantly breaching Covid lockdown rules, and later received a 40 per cent pay rise.
Don’t take my word for all of this. A much more objective monitor of Johnson’s government, Jonathan Evans, the chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life and former MI5 chief, expressed similar concerns in a little-noticed speech late last year that was all the more damning for being couched in diplomatic language.
Referring to the seven principles of public service set out by Lord Nolan in 1995 – selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership – he asked whether we now live in a “post-Nolan age” and continued: “The perception is taking root that too many in public life, including some in our political leadership, are choosing to disregard the norms of ethics and propriety that have explicitly governed public life for the last 25 years, and that, when contraventions of ethical standards occur, nothing happens.”
There were “reasons for real concern”, he said. “Mounting public disquiet is not without foundation…These issues lead some to believe that there is a culture of impunity seeping into British governance.”