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Britain is descending fast into corrupt, cronyistic political culture

Dido Harding, chair of the National Institute for Health Protection and head of the NHS Test and Trace system - Credit: AFP via Getty Images

ALASTAIR CAMPBELL on how the UK government shows contempt of near Trumpian levels.

Needless to say, the government’s fabled miscommunications team got itself into all sorts of muddles over its reaction to the Sunday Times’ revelation that the chair of the UK’s ‘vaccine task force’ briefed American venture capitalists on details of which projects the government was backing.

As we saw from the chaotic wait for Boris Johnson’s weekend lockdown statement, they really struggle to tell the time accurately.

I watched half a football match and a whole rugby match between 4pm, when we were told the event would take place, and the time when, eventually, it did.

So when they issued a full-throated defence of vaccine supremo Kate Bingham, personally appointed by Johnson despite her having no vaccines experience, they could not help but slip up on detail, as they do so often.

No, the documents were not marked “official, sensitive”. Oh yes they were, came the clarification, and so, the not-so-funny Covid panto goes on.

The real problem with their defence of Bingham was that they could not see there was a problem, in hugely valuable government data and information being shared for a $200-a-head online event billed as ‘Inside the Race to Develop a COVID-19 Vaccine’.

Both Bingham’s role in the event, and her contribution, and the presentation materials, were seemingly cleared in advance.

Her ‘presenter bio’ next to her profile picture on the call in question had her down as “Managing Partner, SV Health Investors; Chair, UK Vaccine Taskforce”.

That alone should have had alarm bells ringing for her and anyone else, worrying about the potential for conflicts of interest, or the appearance thereof.

Kate Bingham – Credit: Getty Images for AARP

SV Health Investors is a Boston-based venture capital company that had $2 billion worth of investments in biotech or medical ventures in 2017.

Bingham’s PowerPoint presentation to the American private equity professionals indicated, of the various different vaccine programmes on the go, which ones the UK government was likely to invest in.

“We haven’t necessarily signed contracts with all of them so far,” she was reported as saying.

“But they’re all in our sights.” By now, my alarm bells would have been ringing so loud I would have been going for a lie down because of the migraine.

The PowerPoint had the kind of detail for which investors will pay a lot more than a couple of hundred bucks when weighing up where to bet their money, and here was Bingham laying it all out for them for the price of a top end Manhattan hair do, with nobody inside government batting an eyelid.

Everyone over 50 should have the vaccine by Easter, she said. She said there was a debate going on about whether children should be vaccinated.

She did nice detail too, like the fact that the government will have a fleet of “roving teams on motorbikes” taking the vaccine to people in their homes.

She shared documents predicting that as many in four out of ten won’t take it, though, and she spoke of worries that it might not “actually work”.

She disclosed her view that it was “highly unlikely” there would be legislation to make vaccines mandatory, and that it was “improbable” there would be herd immunity.

So, putting yourself in the mind of one of the US equity fund people hearing all this, a mixed picture. But my God, that is a mine of useful information.

Putting yourself in the mind of anyone with a view that there should be separation in the roles of private entrepreneur and public official, that mind is frankly blown by the fact that nobody in government had any qualms about what she was doing.

There were calls for her to quit the role, but Dominic Cummings and Gavin Williamson have raised the bar so high as to what might constitute a sacking offence, that this was never going to happen.

This is a government brazen in the view that if you are part of the inner circle, you are there to make the rules for others, not necessarily obey them yourselves. It’s the Barnard Castle rule.

The closer you are to the centre of power, the further you can travel from the rules, and get away with it. Cummings broke the rules and got away with it, and had virtually every Tory MP up to and including the prime minister lie for him too.

That Johnson and Michael Gove could not see the problem really is the problem.

There is also something all too cosy about so many of these Johnson appointments. Kate Bingham went to school with Rachel Johnson, his sister, and is married to Jesse Norman, who is not just a Tory MP, but a minister in the Treasury. And I bet you will never guess which school he went to? Why yes … Eton bloody College.

Has any institution ever inflicted as much damage on modern Britain as that single school, what with Cameron’s Brexit and Johnson’s Covid?

Norman was a year or two below Johnson. Who knows, he may have fagged for him. Or he may have lorded it over him, given he is the son of Sir Torquil Norman and Lady Elizabeth Montagu, daughter of the Earl of Sandwich, and the great grandson of Sir Henry Norman, a First Baronet, meaning Jesse Norman and his children are ‘in remainder to the Norman baronetcy,’ whatever the hell that means.

Kate Bingham is also from what the poshoes like to call ‘fine stock’. Her father was Lord Bingham, Master of the Rolls and Lord Chief Justice.

He died in 2010, but I suspect he would have had a quiet word with his daughter about her presentation to the Yanks.
I wonder if any of the current government – the attorney general or the justice secretary for example – have read Bingham’s most celebrated work, The Rule of Law, for which he posthumously won the 2011 Orwell Prize.

I think we can be confident he would not have been impressed by the Internal Market Bill, and the government’s stated threat to break international law.

The Rule of Law is essentially about just that, the importance of law, frameworks, norms, standards and conventions, and the centrality of parliament and the courts to their development.

This government shows contempt of near Trumpian levels for many of them.

Tory MP John Penrose is the UK’s ‘anti-corruption champion’. If I was the government’s anti-corruption champion, I would be keeping a very wary eye on huge Covid contracts being awarded without the usual tendering process, and I would be very worried about any scheme – let’s take test, track and trace as an example – whose cost had gone well north of ten billion, especially as the sum seems to be in inverse proportion to the success of said scheme.

I would probably want to demand a meeting with whichever champion had been appointed by the prime minister to run that scheme, and ask why so much money was being spent when the stated aim of the scheme was clearly not being met, and I would be going through all those contracts with rather more rigour than the Cabinet Office has, for whom the central qualifications would appear to be – how well do you know Boris, Michael or Dom? And have you ever given large wads of cash and voluble support to Vote Leave or the Tory Party?

If our crusading anti-corruption champion were to call in the champion of test, track and trace, they could perhaps hold the meeting over breakfast. Because Mr John Penrose MP is also Mr Dido Harding. What it is about wives of Tory MPs getting these big Covid jobs?

Let’s just imagine for a second that Labour were in power (and many who heard Tony Blair setting out a strategy to get out of lockdown on Monday wished it were so). Let’s say the Labour wife of a Labour minister had been sharing “official, sensitive” vaccine programme details to US money people wanting into the UK health sector.

Let’s say the Labour wife of a Labour anti-corruption champion was helping to spaff £13bn against a wall while the husband was attacking Marcus Rashford’s campaign for free school meals to address holiday hunger.

It would lead the news for days. Panorama specials. Magazine covers and World in Actions galore. Select committee inquiries by the bucketload. And while I am on about the media’s role, how did Rishi Sunak manage to get through a day’s media work without, so far as I heard, being challenged on the role his much vaunted ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme played in reviving the virus, or on the utter madness of throwing into this chaos a dreadful Brexit deal, or no deal, which are now the only options left?

We are not just badly led by a horrifically incompetent cabinet. We are descending fast into becoming a corrupt, croneyistic political culture, with the rot starting at the top. But our supine right-wing media helped create the rot, and is helping to spread it, by failing properly to expose and challenge it, and so failing fundamentally in its democratic duties.

The exceptions, sadly, are merely serving to prove the rule… that it is one rule for the ruling clique, and another for the ruled.

The ruled – that’s us, people – need to wise up, and rise up, and realise that just as Joe Biden has been waging a fight for the soul of America, we are in a fight for the soul of Britain.

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