Scandals are mounting up for the government and could come to define it, says JAMES BALL.
Once the mood music of a government has been established, it stays in place for a long time.
Tony Blair’s premiership will forever be defined by the Iraq War, which will overshadow its many domestic accomplishments. Gordon Brown’s – deservedly or not – was defined by the financial crisis, and David Cameron’s by the austerity that followed it.
John Major’s government, though, wasn’t defined by any of its policies or even by the economic disaster of Black Wednesday, but rather by the relentless scandals of its ministers.
Major never intended for the ‘Back to Basics’ slogan to relate to personal morality, but thanks to the endless bribery and sex scandals of his MPs his enduring legacy – ironically enough for a man whose personal brand centres around dullness – is one of sleaze.
We are one year into Boris Johnson’s government – and already might have enough raw material to define several administrations. Johnson has certainly managed chaos, at one point expelling so many MPs of his own party he ended up around 40 seats short of a majority.
We have seen incompetence, both through the handling of Brexit and far more tragically the handling of coronavirus.
We have also seen a clear disregard of norms and traditions, with a control-freakish Number 10 undermining civil service procedures and norms.
But all of these characteristics may be overridden in the long run, once again for a Conservative administration, by sleaze.
The drumbeat of scandals paces so quickly – and with so little in the way of consequence for transgressors – each individual one can be forgotten.
Not all the allegations being levelled may hold water, but perceptions are being formed of this administration that will be very hard to shift.
The impression created is one of a government in it for themselves, which regards rules as for other people – the little people – and which considers accountability as an unnecessary annoyance.
The scandals of this government come in every shape and form. One of the most notable was Dominic Cummings’ bizarre drive to Barnard Castle during lockdown, obviously in violation of all the laws he had helped to write, which was brushed off with feeble excuses and zero action, to the detriment of public confidence in the lockdown.
Alongside that has been the running scandal of communities secretary Robert Jenrick, who was found to have intervened in a planning decision involving the businessman Richard Desmond, who had lobbied him at a fundraising dinner after contributing to the party.
Ministerial careers have ended for far less, but under this administration instead business minister Nadhim Zahawi was sent out on a round of broadcast interviews to defend his colleague, offering up the idea that it was fine for ministers to intervene in decisions on behalf of donors because anyone could ‘interact’ with ministers – if they just attended a party fundraiser.
There are other issues which feel like sleaze and scandals being ignored or disregarded altogether, many of which fall at the feet of Johnson himself.
Before the general election, the prime minister faced numerous investigations over his relationship with tech entrepreneur Jennifer Arcuri – with whom he enjoyed ‘technology lessons’ at her flat, while she enjoyed a six-figure grant of public funds for her start-up, though a government inquiry found this was ‘appropriate’.
Johnson had also faced questions over his attendance as foreign secretary – apparently without his usual security detail – at parties held by Evgeny Lebedev, proprietor of the Independent and Evening Standard, and son of oligarch and former KGB agent Alexander Lebedev.
Just a week after an uncharacteristically damning report from parliament’s cross-party Intelligence and Security Committee into Russian influence – which warned of the influence of Russian-connected individuals on our political life, including through the House of Lords, Johnson awarded his friend Lebedev a peerage.
While this was, of course, within his power to award, it served as yet another in a long line of slaps in the face to those worried about propriety and decency in public life.
All of this comes before we even consider the arrest last weekend of a Conservative former minister for rape – a hugely serious matter well beyond the scope of ‘sleaze’ – and the decision of the party for him to retain the whip during the investigation. The victim, reporting alleges, attempted to raise the issue on multiple occasions with the chief whip and other party officials, to no avail.
In what seems to be an emerging pattern of behaviour, the official response to allegations against Conservative MP for Delyn, Rob Roberts, of sending inappropriate flirtatious messages to a much younger intern have been muted at least – and Roberts, too, retains the whip.
Not every government is like this. Theresa May is a politician with many faults – her Home Office record is a cruel one, and her ‘nothing has changed’ style in government was robotic at best – but her administration was generally tough on misbehaviour.
Gavin Williamson was quickly and very publicly fired when he was suspected of leaking classified information on Huawei shortly after a cabinet subcommittee meeting. Michael Fallon was kicked out of cabinet as groping allegations against him were aired. Even May’s long-time lieutenant Damian Green was eventually disposed of as scandals against him mounted.
May’s track record was hardly saintly in this area: the correct decision to suspend the whip from Charlie Elphicke – now convicted of three counts of sexual assault – was reversed, and the whip reinstated, in a moment of desperation
to win a narrow vote. But the general mood music in her administration was that the rules mattered. Break them, or risk the public’s trust, and you’d be thrown out.
That’s not how the top of British public life feels under Boris Johnson, where the mood seems to be that if you just style something out, back Brexit, and stay loyal, whatever else you do doesn’t count – so why not indulge a little?
The result is absolutely corrosive at a time when government is regularly and necessarily making huge outsourcing and purchasing decisions without the usual scrutiny and tendering processes on contracts.
It is essential during a pandemic that government can make big things happen quickly, and that means emergency procurement is necessary. It is also inevitable that people working in major companies providing government services will have connections with ministers and officials. It would be completely bizarre if they knew no-one, and that would probably be a sign they were unfit to take on the contract.
But a willingness to be pragmatic and to give the benefit of the doubt only goes so far: good faith has to work in both directions.
When Johnson has multiple personal scandals, and seems to turn a blind eye to misbehaviour by those around him, why should voters have faith in his good conduct?
We have more than three and a half years until a general election. Johnson will not have to face the voters any time soon. But he shouldn’t take them for granted in the meantime, as he risks damaging trust in government as an institution – right at a time when that trust is essential to responding to a deadly virus that almost killed the prime minister himself.
Johnson is a man desperate to have a historic legacy, so much so that he wrote a biography of his idol Churchill that seemed obsessed in leading the reader to conclude just how similar he was to the wartime PM.
What, then, will he leave as his legacy? He may wish it to be Brexit, or rewiring the state. But as it stands, he will be known for sleaze and for grift – a John Major 2.0, for the 21st century. Can he do better?