If ministers are to be believed, we should not concern ourselves with whom initially funded the £58,000 refurbishment of the Prime Minister’s flat. When interviewed, ministers willing divulge that the Prime Minister ultimately footed the bill, but they become curiously tight-lipped when, having failed to answer it, the question is asked of them again – this time with greater emphasis on the initially. Of course, it would be naïve to think that the nuance was lost on them the first time.
When the question is put a second time, they deem it inappropriate to comment on the precise financial arrangements and, what is more, proceed to advise the interviewer that the viewers at home are not interested in who paid for the wallpaper, that their listeners would prefer it if they discussed the “real issues” rather than the Prime Minister’s curtains. Nothing rouses suspicion quite like a government stating what the electorate does and does not care about.
Despite ministers’ best efforts to play down the seriousness of the allegations, they are anything but inconsequential. Failing to disclose political donations is breaking the law – and for good reason. Large sums of money rarely pass hands without some sort of quid pro quo. We are entitled to know to whom our politicians are beholden so that we can reach our own conclusions about whose interests they are really concerned with. The Electoral Commission has now launched a full-scale investigation into where the £58,000 came from; this would be unnecessary if the Prime Minister would simply answer the question.
Regular readers of this blog will know that these latest allegations are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the government’s sleaze. More and more details are emerging about the billions of pounds worth of COVID-19 contracts, which were awarded without competitive tender, and by means of the government’s “high-priority lane” went to associates of the Tory Party. P14 Medical, Meller Designs and Pharmaceuticals Direct Limited, all run by Tory associates or donors, were granted PPE contracts worth £276m, £160m and £102.6m respectively. Ayanda Capital Ltd, a private equity firm with connections to an adviser working under Liz Truss, the International Trade Secretary, was awarded a £253m contact; 50m of the masks it supplied were unfit for use by NHS staff.
A £30m contract for the supply of test tubes went to Hinpack, a firm with no prior experience in supplying medical items but whose owner had Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, on his list of WhatsApp contacts. Hancock has recently come under fire after it was discovered he owns shares in a company which has been approved as an NHS supplier; there are clear grounds for arguing a conflict of interest. As if that is not enough, a high court judge has ruled that Hancock broke the law by failing to publish details of the government’s COVID-19 contracts within the required time period.
Then there were the individuals appointed to key roles in the fight against the pandemic, without a proper recruitment process. The role of chair of the UK’s vaccine taskforce went to a venture capitalist who also happens to be the wife of a Tory minister. The individual appointed to oversee NHS Test and Trace was CEO of TalkTalk when it was subjected to a cyberattack by two teenagers, resulting in the theft of nearly 160,000 customers’ personal data, but she is also the wife of a Tory MP.
The BBC has published text messages between Sir James Dyson and the Prime Minister, in which the latter promises to “fix” the tax status of Dyson’s employees if they moved to the UK to manufacture ventilators. No one argues that ventilators were not desperately needed, but the lack of transparency is staggering. Indeed, someone badly needs to explain the lobbying rules to Hancock; he met with former Prime Minister, David Cameron, and the founder of Greensill Capital – for whom Cameron started working after leaving office – for private drinks, so that they could discuss a new payment scheme for NHS staff. As if determined not to be outdone by Hancock, Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, introduced a Towns Fund in the Budget to help “level up” towns and support their post-pandemic recovery; curiously, of the 56 constituencies that will receive funding, 47 are in Tory control.
It seems that there is nothing that ministers can do to get the sack. Robert Jenrick, the Housing Secretary, overruled the government’s planning inspectorate by approving a £1bn housing development plan put forward by former press tycoon, Richard Desmond. The latter subsequently donated £12,000 to the Tory Party. The Prime Minister ignored the outcry; evidently, he did not think that the demands of integrity warranted Jenrick’s dismissal. And, similarly, when the Independent Advisor on Ministerial Standards found that the Home Secretary, Priti Patel’s, treatment of civil servants breached the ministerial code, it was the Advisor who left his post, not Patel.
There is more than a mere whiff of sleaze surrounding this government. We have seen the emergence of a new Toryism under Boris Johnson; it is a caricature of the man himself, self-serving and lacking in both integrity and any sense of responsibility. The neoliberal belief in the free market has been restated; markets should be free to operate insofar as it is only the Tories and their political allies that have access to it. Meritocracy is now not so much a question of ability, but of whether, and how much, you donate to the Tory party. We fail to hold this government to account at our peril.