“There is hope,” said fellow Lido-regular Martin as I arrived for my 7am swim last Friday.
“Because if Sarkozy can end up in jail, so can Johnson.”
As it happens, the ex-French president will serve his year-long sentence for breaking election funding laws at home, wearing an electronic tag. But by any reckoning, it is a damning, reputation-destroying, history-defining outcome.
There was a time when Brits looked across the Channel to France, or lower down to Italy and Spain, puffed ourselves up with British exceptionalism, and reflected on our moral and democratic superiority that corruption was very much a thing for the Continent.
Yet whether in the already exposed unlawful activities of the Leave referendum campaign in use of funding and data, or the scandal over Covid contracting, it is possible to make the case that Boris Johnson’s government has already done far worse than Nicolas Sarkozy. Indeed, the Good Law Project has been making that case well across several fronts, and long may it continue, given parliament and media are so spectacularly failing to hold this government properly to account.
The charge against Sarkozy was that his UMP party spent more than double the election spending cap, then tried to hide the costs by hiring a PR firm, Bygmalion, to invoice the party, rather than the campaign. The court in Paris accepted Sarkozy may not have been aware of the details of the fraud, yet still judged he would have known the limits were being breached, and did nothing to stop it.
Set against what we have already seen in relation to the government’s Covid contracting, it all seems relatively tame. Hence my friend Martin’s hope about the Tories eventually seeing justice.
According to Transparency International UK, at least a fifth of government Covid contracts awarded as the pandemic took hold contained “red flags for possible corruption”.
Political connections were perceived to be more important than the ability of companies to deliver value for money, or in some cases even have the ability to deliver at all. The group argued that the so-called ‘VIP lane’, in which companies were prioritised by political connections, “damaged trust in the integrity of the pandemic response”.
The public bill for contracts awarded to firms with connections to the Conservative party ran into billions, many awarded without competitive tender. They identified £255m worth of contracts given to companies that had been incorporated within the previous 60 days, suggesting no real track record in business at all. If this happened in Ghana or Greece, Bosnia or Botswana, I think we can all imagine what Tory MPs would be saying about it.
Now another little scandal comes along, which because of the normalisation of cronyism and chumocracy under Johnson, appears barely to have registered on the political and media radar.
Have you heard of Malcolm Offord? No? Me neither, until last Friday when I read in the Daily Mirror that he had been appointed as a minister in the Scotland Office.
Ah, you’re thinking, so he’s a Tory MP?
Well, no, he’s not an MP. He’s a banker.
But how can a banker be a minister in the Commons?
He can’t. He is going to the House of Lords.
So, hold on… he has been given a peerage and a ministerial position, despite not having much of a CV on the political front at all?
So what are his political qualifications?
He was fast-tracked onto the candidates’ list for the Scottish Parliament, but he failed to get elected.
He has given almost £150,000 to the Tory Party.
Oh! I see.
‘Cash for honours’ anyone? An SNP MP merely made an allegation that the Blair government awarded honours on the basis of donations to the Labour Party. He admitted he had no evidence. The papers got very excited though. It went big on the news. The police launched an investigation. Tony Blair became the first prime minister to be interviewed by the police. It went nowhere in the end, but my God what a lot of noise it created, what a lot of energy it consumed.
On Friday morning the Offord story did not even make the BBC paper review, let alone the news. So just think about that for a moment. A man with no actual political experience is appointed to the Lords and put into the government, despite there being a number of elected Scottish MPs who could have done the job. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the sole reason that he was preferred over them was his generosity to the party. And that is not even deemed newsworthy any more.
As Keir Starmer pointed out last week, Johnson thinks laws and rules are for others, not for him and his cronies. Though it is all of a keeping with how he has lived his life, it is a risky strategy. Despite deliberately weakening the guardrails of democracy, such as parliament, the judiciary and a robust media, he is unlikely to be able to achieve what the Xis and Putins have done, and rule for life; one day he will be a former prime minister. Provided the rule of law is maintained, I for one, and Martin at the Lido for another, can easily imagine – indeed we did, and enjoyed it as much as the swim – the day when Johnson is in the dock, and a QC is asking: “What was it about the £147,000 donation from Mr Offord that made you think he would be a worthy member of the House of Lords, and a minister in Her Majesty’s government?”
I liked a lot about Starmer’s conference speech, and saying that Johnson was “not a bad man, but a trivial man” was a clever line of attack. It is, however, not true. Johnson is a very bad man, doing very bad things, and one day, as for Sarkozy, there must be a proper reckoning.