There is a danger that Boris Johnson will spin this as something general – a flaw in the system, a crisis for politics itself – thereby blinding us to what is in front of our noses: the return of Tory sleaze. Though even that word is too mild. The sleaze stories of the 1990s are dwarfed by this week’s revelations, which suggest not only serial abuse of office by a former Conservative prime minister, but a pattern of corruption at the heart of this Tory government.
The evidence was mounting up already. The communities secretary, Robert Jenrick, rushing through an “unlawful” planning decision benefiting property developer and Tory donor Richard Desmond, saving the former porn publisher £45m in local taxes. A fast-track for those with friends in high places, allowing the well-connected to jump the queue when the PPE procurement contracts were handed out early in the Covid crisis, so that companies with no relevant experience – but a bulging contacts book – landed contracts worth hundreds of millions. Jennifer Arcuri, Johnson’s former lover, receiving £126,000 in public money, some of it from London’s City Hall while Johnson was mayor. Priti Patel breaking the ministerial code, yet holding on to her job while the official who reached that verdict is out of his – leaving the post vacant, which means behaviour by ministers has gone unscrutinised for five months.
On top of all that, we now know that current Tory cabinet ministers were in regular touch – texting or sharing a pint – with their former boss David Cameron, as he used his status as an ex-PM and the privileged access it gave him to pitch on behalf of his new employer, Lex Greensill. If Cameron could get his one-time colleagues and subordinates to do as he asked, he stood to pocket a staggering $60m. What’s more, this week we discovered that in Cameron’s government, holders of top civil service posts were simultaneously moonlighting for Greensill, and that they were allowed to do so. They were paid by you and me to guard the public purse, but they were also looking out for a finance company that proved so dodgy it collapsed.
What would you call that record, if not Tory sleaze? And yet instead of fearing that cronyism and corruption will be their undoing, the Conservatives, buoyed up by a Times poll showing them 14 points ahead, can see a double way out. First, they can pretend that most of this happened under a previous regime, the Cameron administration, an entity wholly unconnected with the current government. That approach has a particular appeal to Johnson: he can throw his Eton rival under the bus. But it won’t wash. From 2010 till today, the Conservative party has ruled the country. Its partners and personnel may have changed, but it is the same party.
The other, more inviting Tory path is to nod earnestly and concede that this is a systemic problem, one that affects all parties and which should be cleaned up. This rests on the assertion that Labour are just as rotten, and draws strength from the populist catechism that all politicians are as bad as each other, all in it for themselves. Johnson gave a run-out to that argument at prime minister’s questions, hitting back at Keir Starmer by noting the business activities of Labour peer Peter Mandelson, now back as an unofficial adviser to the Labour leader.
There’s a rich vein for Johnson to mine. Several New Labour luminaries were caught in lobbying scandals of their own, while Tony Blair notoriously cashed in after leaving office in 2007. And didn’t the rot set in with New Labour’s fondness for bringing private sector executives into the civil service? As for corruption, last month’s verdict on Labour’s governance of Liverpool city council could hardly be more damning. All of which makes it tempting, for the media especially, to cast the current crisis as a plague-on-all-your-houses problem of all parties.
Labour has to fight that impulse hard. It can admit that Blair made a fortune working for assorted hideous regimes, but he never lobbied the British government for profit as Cameron did. And yes, Labour brought various commercial figures into Whitehall but they did not work for private companies at the same time. More easily, Starmer the former prosecutor can say the party is under new management now and he will have zero tolerance of sleaze wherever he finds it, whether that’s in Liverpool or in the construction project that was supposed to cost Unite members £35m, but ended up costing £98m, after the contract was awarded to one of Len McCluskey’s pals.
Johnson cannot make a similarly clean break, partly because of the Arcuri affair, which implicates him directly, and partly because the abusers and disgracers of office in his cabinet remain there: he sacked neither Jenrick nor Patel, and no heads have rolled over PPE procurement. On the contrary, the “disruptor” ethos embodied by Johnson’s ex-svengali Dominic Cummings positively glorifies rule-breaking. The arrogance that comes with an 80-seat majority only feeds that sense of impunity.
Of course, Labour can propose a battery of systemic changes. That could include a ban on lobbying by former office holders, preventing them from influencing the decision-makers they used to work with; a new integrity commission with the power of sanction, rather than the mere right to write stiff but ignorable letters; an end to civil service moonlighting; and repair of the currently broken freedom of information regime, to ensure transparency.
Labour can argue for that as policy, but must not forget the politics. Once the current vaccine bounce dips, which it will, the Tories will be vulnerable to attack. This is a charge that resonates: that they’ve been in too long, that too many look out for themselves, that it’s one rule for them and their mates, another rule for the rest of us. Tory sleaze is a slogan that cuts through for one reason above all: because it’s true.
Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist