Venal disease of corruption has Johnson in a Pickles

by Nathaniel Tapley

You’ll be glad to know the Government has set up an inquiry. Beset by near-daily allegations of corruption, ministerial misconduct and a general pall of venality hanging over Whitehall, the Government has set up an inquiry – into who keeps leaking to the press.

You can see why. It’s getting hard to keep up. Let’s recap. A former prime minister has lobbied the Chancellor of the Exchequer to get a finance company owned by his friend a big government hand-out of Covid cash. The Health Secretary owns shares in a company founded by his horse-trainer sister and owned in large part by the rest of his family, which is also on the receiving end of NHS contracts. More than £10bn was awarded to companies without competition, and a special process favoured companies run by people who were friends or family of people in the Government.

The current Prime Minister seems to have had a hand in facilitating substantial grants of taxpayer money to someone he was – then – sleeping with, while taking text messages to try to change tax policy for the benefit of gaunt, brittle Hoover manufacturers. That’s a lot of snouts in a myriad panoply of troughs, and it appears that if you want to get on Johnson’s good side it pays to be an expert in suction.

We can only imagine the consequences of all this. We can only imagine it because there are unlikely to be any real consequences. The ministerial code is meant to stop personal embezzlement, but it’s fine with you siphoning off public funds on behalf of friends or family or lovers or powerful companies. That, after all, we’ve been told repeatedly during the crisis, is the purpose of government: to get cash
into the hands of the right people. Once, those people were poor. Now, they are rich.

A government spokesman said there was no conflict of interest in Matt Hancock being given shares in a company that was tendering for NHS contracts at the very time he was in charge of the NHS. That spokesperson has a great career ahead as a latterday Magritte: painting pictures of Hancock’s face and scrawling “Ceci n’est pas un conflict of interest” underneath.

The fact Hancock received the shares as a gift has been wheeled out in his defence, when – to anyone who thinks about it – that makes it far worse. What possible reason could there be to give a minister of state shares in a company, except in the expectation that their involvement will increase the share value?

Maybe I’m being too cynical. Maybe it’s an appropriate gift. Maybe it was a thanks-for-looking-after-the-cats-whenwe-went-to-Riga present, but it feels like a bottle of red would have been more appropriate. Christmas must be a right laugh at the Hancocks’: at the bottom of each stocking is a tangerine, some nuts and ten shares in GlaxoSmithKline.

The ministerial code is meant to stop personal embezzlement, but it’s fine with you siphoning off public funds on behalf of friends or family or lovers or powerful companies

This was exactly the moment, then, for a staunch defender of Conservative corruption to leap into action. So who popped up on the news? Tony Blair.

Blair took to the airwaves to tell us he thinks lobbying “is a good idea.” This might seem important, but let’s remember that other things Blair thought were a good idea include: wearing jeans with a tucked-in shirt, ASBOs, and the Iraq War.

Blair hammered the Tories for sleaze in the 1990s before jumping at the chance to personally intervene in protecting cigarette advertising in Formula 1 after a meeting with Bernie Ecclestone. From dropping depleted uranium on Iraqi villages to ensuring fast cars could keep facilitating cancer, it’s surely just a coincidence that the results of so many of his policies were dead kids.

Now he rears up like a water-damaged Peter Stringfellow to tell us that lobbying is great. It’s especially great for people who have connections with people in governments they can exploit in exchange for money, or nice things that money can buy.

You might ask yourself how he can sleep at night having been a paid consultant to the government of Kazakhstan when it opened fire on protestors, jailed opposition leaders and shut down opposition parties. But wraiths don’t sleep at night, they merely haunt the shadow kingdoms, rattling their bony hands at passers-by and waiting for the next invitation to go on Sky News to defend corruption like The Ghost of Christmas Past-ard.

It wasn’t just Blair, of course. New Labour was riddled with that sort of venality: Alan Milburn went from being the Health Secretary who did most to privatise the NHS to being an adviser to Alliance Healthcare and a director of Bridgepoint Capital, who had many investments in private healthcare. David Blunkett got a column in The Sun. Let’s not even begin to contemplate what Nick Clegg’s up to, as news of the next Myanmar mass shooting organised on Facebook comes in.

Still, it’s not like we’re powerless. There’s always ACOBA, the committee designed to oversee ministers and civil servants moving into private enterprise, headed up by Lord Pickles. If you try to get a job to capitalise on your government work, Eric Pickles will rise from the deep, slap his flukes upon the water, and drench you with shame. Or, at least, that’s the theory.

This was exactly the moment, then, for a staunch defender of Conservative corruption to leap into action. So who popped up on the news? Tony Blair.

In fact, when Lord Pickles appears on television, flapping like a bouncy castle that’s slipped a guy rope, it’s worth bearing in mind that even he (a man who was once best known for having claimed £10,000 of taxpayers’ money for biscuits) may have undeclared conflicts of interest.

As well as heading up the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, meant to ensure distance between government and private interests, he’s also President of the Enterprise Forum, an organisation founded “to improve the quality and flow of information between the business community and the Conservative Party.”

So, if you’re a politician or a civil servant and you want to enrich yourself at the buffet of public benefice, you can be confident that you can very much have your cake and eat it, too. Which is the way Eric Pickles likes it.

 


Nathaniel Tapley is a comedy writer and performer on the TV shows you hate


 

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