How damaging will the Greensill scandal be for the Conservatives?

The risk for the government is that a series of disparate stories stick in the minds of the media and the public as one big story about Tory corruption.

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Is the Greensill affair a story of Conservative sleaze, a story of an unaccountable civil service elite, or the beginning of a lobbying scandal that will rip through the political class? Labour hopes it’s the first, the Conservatives hope it’s the second, and both fear it is the third. 

The danger for the Conservatives is that a series of disparate stories stick in the minds of the media and the public as one big story about Tory corruption. To take today’s headlines about Matt Hancock and his shares in Topwood – a company that provides shredding services and other archive management. The all-important BBC website headline is “Matt Hancock owns shares in NHS contract firm”. 

But the details show that the contracts in question were awarded by the NHS in Wales, which is run, for the moment, by the Welsh Labour government. Is it the position of Labour in Westminster that the Labour administration in Cardiff can’t tell the difference between a good company and a bad one? That they were gulled into giving contracts to a firm by Hancock? You can see how easily the Greensill affair becomes complicated – and in a way that turns it into a messy and attritional draw for the two main parties.

Equally, of course, perhaps what matters more is not the detail of the Topwood story but the headline: that disclosures and revelations about proximity to the private sector and lack of transparency in public life are seen, inevitably and inextricably, as stories about the Conservative government: and that the affair becomes a drag anchor on the government, whether the detail of each individual scandal merits that or not.

[see also: Why the British system is so easily gamed by reckless opportunists]

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics. He also co-hosts the New Statesman podcast.

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