Dodgy dealings at Westminster

Do corona contracts expose corruption at the heart of government?

Corruption within government, we Brits have traditionally understood, is something that happens elsewhere. We remember well those days-gone-by reports of corrupt South American military juntas and so-called banana republics. We’re perfectly willing to accept that corruption at the highest level of government is more or less the norm in those communist or former communist strongholds of China and Russia. We’ll even reluctantly agree that corruption has played a part in Trumpian politics in the USA. After all, wasn’t the man himself caught out in a telephone call asking Georgia’s election chief to “find” enough votes to reverse the election result and give himself victory? But corruption here at home, at the heart of Westminster? No, surely not, it’s unthinkable; we’re British for goodness sake. We simply don’t do that sort of thing. Or do we?

There was public outrage last year when in response to the coronavirus crisis, billions of pounds’ worth of contracts were issued by
the Government without any competition to companies owned or run by individuals closely linked to senior figures within government. And when the facts were made public there were no explanations, no resignations, not even a hint of embarrassment, just a shrug of ministerial shoulders and a swift move on to the next multi-million pound deal. The naming of too closely connected, and arguably therefore, unsuitable names, has been extensive and exhaustive, and the Eton College link has also loomed large throughout.

But still the Government bowls on unbowed. “Do what you will and never apologise,” appears to be the maxim of the Johnson government, whose latest bestowing of political peerages has also proved controversial, bringing accusations of cronyism. The PM put up Tory donor and businessman Peter Cruddas for a seat in the upper house. The Lords Appointments Commission, which vets all those nominated, decided it could not support Cruddas, a former Conservative co-treasurer named by The Sunday Times in a “cash for political access” scandal back in 2012.

Despite winning a libel action against the paper, when the case went to appeal, aspects of the original allegations were upheld and the damages paid to Cruddas were reduced from £180,000 to £50,000. This was clearly relevant in the decision of the appointments commission, but not to Johnson who went ahead with the peerage anyway. Is that loyalty or cronyism – and corruption?

What our surveys show

It could be argued that the current government is displaying unprecedented arrogance with its policy of offering contracts and awards to friends, but with a massive Commons majority it can, for now at least, follow this risky route. But regardless of the fact that the great British public handed Johnson and Co. this majority just over a year ago, that same British public is watching closely and in this particular area is unimpressed.

A huge 85% of those surveyed either “Agree” or “Strongly Agree” that it’s wrong to hand out contracts on the basis of political connections rather than expertise or experience. Only 9% disagreed in any way. Probably even more worrying for the Government is the revelation that 59% said they believe the level of corruption in British politics is “High” or “Very High.” Only 28% think corruption levels are “Low” or “Very Low.”

The age-group breakdown on this question makes interesting reading, proving that the “It would never happen here” view is gone forever. Furthermore 48% reckon corruption has increased under Johnson, with only 16% saying it has decreased and 25% thinking it’s
stayed the same.

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