As the Downing Street chumocracy implodes, Simon Heffer asks why we have suffered it so long
When Boris Johnson did all he could last month to make life difficult for an embarrassed David Cameron over his relationship with the failed Australian financier Lex Greensill he must have been frightfully pleased with himself. He was not only twisting the tail of an already humiliated long-term rival, but also detracting attention from a little local difficulty he himself was having: the matter of what he did or did not do as Mayor of London to secure £126,000 in public funding for the business activities of one of his former mistresses, Jennifer Arcuri. The plan could not have gone more spectacularly wrong had he tried.
Within days of the stone having been lifted on so-called Conservative party sleaze, a far nastier succession of insects had crawled out, all adding to the suggestion of dishonesty in the way Johnson runs his life in Downing Street. The extravagant taste in interior decoration of his current inamorata, Carrie Symonds, led him to suffer a serious bout of financial cramp, and apparently (on the advice of some well-placed but foolish friends) to use Conservative party funds to pay for Symonds’s world of interiors. It won’t have helped perceptions of rank-and-file Tory party donors that Symonds dismissed the décor inherited from Theresa May as a “John Lewis furniture nightmare”, when many who pay their subscriptions to the Tories would be delighted to have such furniture themselves.
The problem is that Johnson, despite having earned substantial sums while London Mayor and as a backbencher from media work and public appearances, is reportedly so cleaned out after his divorce that he struggles to pay for the upkeep of the latest of his several children born out of wedlock. The Conservative Party has admitted paying legal costs he incurred as a consequence of earlier inquiries into his relationship with Arcuri. It was believed – until the current row over his use of Tory donors’ money – that if he required further legal advice or representation over that affair a party donor would pay for it. He may well require such advice, as the Oversight Committee of the Greater London Authority is investigating him. Politicians aren’t supposed to hide such things – hence the Register of Members’ Interests – and the next quarterly update will be examined with great care. Johnson has been rebuked in the past for making late declarations of his income, and he may end up in serious trouble if it turns out that a significant donation was not declared.
Johnson, despite having earned substantial sums while London Mayor and as a backbencher from media work and public appearances, is reportedly so cleaned out after his divorce that he struggles to pay for the upkeep of the latest of his several children born out of wedlock
The Labour Party, which has so far proved ineffectual in exposing any further mendacities on the part of Johnson has asked the Electoral Commission to discover the truth about the initial payment of the £58,000 towards a £200,000 redecoration of the Downing Street flat. It is said that Ben Elliot – co-chairman of the party and a close friend of Symonds – had the idea of setting up a charity to cover the cost of maintaining 10 and 11 Downing Street to her exacting standards. It would be interesting to see what the Charities Commission would make of “charitable” donors funding the lavish refurbishment, but the trust was never set up. It turns out that the £58,000 came initially from the Conservative Party, but when it was realised how improper this looked, it was repaid by Lord Brownlow, a long-time donor said to be chairman of the “trust”. Johnson now claims to have repaid the money. As he apparently didn’t have it in the first place, and needed to be funded for it, one wonders how he managed to pay it back.
Johnson and his shrinking band of cronies – according to Dominic Cummings, most people who work closely with him end up despising his amorality – must deeply regret that Cameron’s foolishness with Greensill has turned the spotlight back on the age-old question of how Tory politicians emulate the lifestyles of the rich people with whom they often associate. According to some reports, Cameron stood to make up to £60m from share options for his activities as a hired gun for Greensill. They have triggered seven separate inquiries, including into the conduct of civil servants from the late Sir Jeremy Heywood, another admirer of Greensill and Cameron’s cabinet secretary, downwards. The Treasury Select Committee will examine that department’s response to Cameron’s lobbying of Rishi Sunak. The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee will examine whether lobbying regulations and Civil Service rules were broken. The Public Accounts Committee will look at supply chain financing and how government-backed Covid loans were offered to company loans that Cameron was lobbying for.
Simon Case, the Cabinet Secretary who has proved distinctly ineffectual at knowing what is going on in Downing Street, asked all civil servants to declare any outside jobs they have that could create conflicts of interest. He then declared a clean sheet, following the sudden resignation from a government post of Lord Udny-Lister, a long-time flunkey of Johnson. Inevitably perhaps, the Committee on Standards in Public Life will launch a general inquiry, and the Cabinet Office is to review the Lobbying Act, which is generally thought to have been too limited (it was drawn up under Cameron’s rule). But the seventh and final inquiry is one interpreted as allowing Johnson to settle scores with Cameron: the appointment of a senior commercial lawyer, Nigel Boardman, to lead a government inquiry into the whole Greensill episode.
One might jest that to have one dodgy head of government is a misfortune; to have two in so short a space of time is downright careless. In fact, it is far worse than that: the reputation for probity in financial dealings that has managed to stick to most holders of Britain’s highest political offices in recent decades begins to look threadbare. With this decline comes the spectacle of the United Kingdom as a laughing-stock, just when the world order is unstable and the assertion of some authority would be welcome. It may look comical, but it isn’t.
What is astonishing is that the public, and many of its elected representatives, have put up with this corrupt behaviour for so long, and to the point where it seems to have become unremarkable: though the fiasco about the flat and the attempt to cover it up appears to be changing that. Six out of ten people now say they find Johnson untrustworthy. A highly pertinent article in the Observer in early April, by Catherine Bennett, asked the key question about him: why, when he acts with such greed and impropriety in his personal and public lives, does no-one seem to mind? Why do his various lies and evasions go increasingly unnoticed? For ages the proverbial blind eye was turned to his sexual incontinence: but now, far more corruptingly, it is being turned to financial irregularity. Is it that he is so deeply beloved that forgiveness for faults that would normally bring a prime minister down comes automatically? Or is it that the present climate of dodgy politicians is now so pervasive that we have simply written off the political class, have accepted that bad behaviour is what they do, and couldn’t care less whether or not they are held to account? If so, all we are doing is encouraging shocking behaviour at every level of society.
The British used to point to foreign administrations (not those in the third world, which were assumed intrinsically corrupt, but those in countries considered part of western civilisation) and compare their leaders’ crookedness with our leaders’ uprightness – think Chirac, Sarkozy, Kohl, Berlusconi. But now, it seems, British exceptionalism no longer applies to the conduct of politicians, and Johnson and
Cameron have set the tone nicely. Robert Jenrick, the Communities Secretary, was forced to admit that his approval of a £1bn luxury housing development on the Isle of Dogs in London was unlawful. The developer, Richard Desmond, admitted to lobbying Jenrick at a Tory fundraising dinner the previous November. Had the scheme gone ahead, Jenrick’s approval would have saved Desmond £106m by going through before an infrastructure levy became payable, and by reducing by more than a third the amount of social housing required. Jenrick did not declare this conflict of interest until long after the event. He remains in office.
Hancock and his sister, Emily Gilruth, own shares in Topwood, a shredding company with NHS contracts worth £300,000. Gilruth is a director of the firm. It was only in March this year that Hancock declared he had shares in it
The coronavirus pandemic has opened up previously unimaginable financial possibilities for those with friends in the right places. Of nearly £18bn in contracts for personal protective equipment (PPE), £10.5bn worth was given without any competitive tendering procedure. In February the High Court ruled that Matt Hancock, the health secretary, acted unlawfully by handing out PPE contracts without publishing the requisite awards notices within 30 days. It was then revealed that Hancock and his sister, Emily Gilruth, own shares in Topwood, a shredding company with NHS contracts worth £300,000. Gilruth is a director of the firm. It was only in March this year that Hancock declared he had shares in it, but did not declare his family interest.
Now the chairman of NHS England and former Conservative MP, Lord Prior of Brampton, has been exposed as helping to arrange the lobbying of senior NHS officials by executives of Greensill Capital. One of those allegedly lobbied was Baroness Harding, a Tory friend of Hancock who was put in the Lords in 2014 by another friend, Cameron. Her appointment to run Britain’s Covid test and trace system was heavily criticised even before she took it over on account of her lack of relevant experience: she was previously Chief Executive of TalkTalk. She presided over what was regarded as its incompetence until 1 April. It did little to prevent the spread of Covid despite a budget of £22bn for its first year, and claims – not denied by Harding – that consultants were being paid £1,000 each per day to try to make it work.
Such expenditure reinforces two thoughts among those familiar with such businesses: that those operations (like test and trace) that are focused predominately on call centres must be haemorrhaging cash somewhere else; and that somewhere else is usually consultancies, typically for contacts, friends and cronies of the management. However, Harding was then appointed to run (again, until 1 April) the National Institute for Health Protection, which would oversee test and trace. Nor was that the end of the NHS’s potential for making the rich richer. As part of his lobbying duties for the firm, Cameron took Lex Greensill for a private drink with Hancock to discuss a new scheme for paying NHS staff.
Cameron often attracts the noun “entitlement” to describe or explain his perceived character flaws. Despite having been a mediocre prime minister, and having no serious business experience, he felt it quite right that he should have been put on a financial firm’s payroll and offered millions in share options. His ruin and the explosion of his credibility are likely to be punishment enough for his greed – and for his foolishness, in forgetting that if something looked too good to be true, it probably was. Johnson, who treats the country and his party with the contempt he’s said to show to his colleagues, is morally and ethically a far worse case.
It’s been often said that lying is his second nature; so is living off the misguided generosity of others (though it would be interesting to know Brownlow’s motives for bankrolling the re-decoration: perhaps because he thinks Johnson is a political genius). The vulnerability of these two “right honourable gentlemen” is the moment for the British public, as the French appear to have done, to proclaim that they won’t be governed any longer by politicians whose contempt for the rules is in fact a contempt for the general public. Johnson especially, if the public is to have any confidence in British public life, must get what is coming to him. If a serving prime minister can behave like this, why should anyone else at any level of public life behave honestly?
Simon Heffer is a historian, journalist and Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham