Boris Johnson’s downfall: a corrosive culture of cronyism

Analysis: Partygate was the last straw, but the long view of history will count a broader catalogue of corruption

Lying, rule-breaking, and a surfeit of cake have brought down Boris Johnson’s premiership just two and a half years after his December 2019 election triumph. But in years to come, his era as prime minister is likely to be remembered for something even more corrosive than Partygate: a cronyism that favoured the politically connected with top jobs and Covid contracts worth billions.

Almost forgotten now is the moment in November 2021 when Johnson tried to tear down the whole system for maintaining standards in public life.

When Owen Paterson, a former minister and fervent Brexiter, was found to have partaken in “egregious” paid lobbying by the standards commissioner, Johnson whipped his MPs mid-case to vote to change the rules to protect him. The morning after, following a U-turn, the Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, called Johnson out for “corruption” and the opposition finally began to gain traction. Anger among fellow Tory MPs was palpable. The final act in a drama that would take many twists and turns had begun.

Freebies and favours …

The new year of 2020 opened with a sleazy controversy over who had paid for the prime minister to have a luxury holiday in Mustique with his then – fiancee, Carrie Symonds. Johnson had sought a freebie from the Tory donor and millionaire owner of Carphone Warehouse, David Ross, the parliamentary standards commissioner, Kathryn Stone, later found. He did not check the details of financial arrangements for the £15,000-a week villa they had stayed in when he declared it as a gift from Ross in the MPs’ register. He was cleared of deliberate wrongdoing by fellow MPs – they found Ross had ultimately paid for the villa although he did not own it – but the tone of seeking favours and a casual disregard for the rules was set.

Absorbed by the UK’s Brexit withdrawal agreement at the end of January, distracted by his complicated domestic affairs, and away at the grace-and-favour house Chevening for two weeks in February, Johnson missed five vital meetings of the emergency civil contingencies committee (Cobra) about the pandemic. It was not until 2 March that he chaired Cobra. The lack of leadership and a characteristic reluctance to act contributed to the UK’s high Covid death toll, according to Johnson’s critics.

At the end of March, just a few days after Johnson had broadcast news to the country of a lockdown, the first of a series of Covid deals was agreed with a Northern Irish healthcare company called Randox Laboratories. It was an early example of what would become a pattern. Randox was notable for having paid for the services of Paterson to the tune of £100,000 a year. Randox went on to win about £480m of government contracts providing Covid testing, awarded without competitive tender under emergency powers.

Covid and cronyism …

The Randox connection would bookend the Johnson term. A Guardian investigation in 2019 revealed Paterson’s paid lobbying for the company and two other Northern Irish firms, and in October 2021 the commissioner found him to have breached MPs’ rules. When Johnson’s efforts to save his friend from sanction backfired, Paterson was forced to resign. The loss of the ultra-safe Tory seat of North Shropshire in the resulting byelection alarmed many Tory MPs with far smaller majorities, and was a pivotal moment in Johnson’s fall.

The Randox Covid contracts were just one example of what was initially politely tagged Johnson’s “chumocracy”. Randox and Matt Hancock, the then health secretary, both claimed that an investigation into the contracts by the public spending watchdog, the National Audit Office (NAO), had vindicated them. The NAO said it had not found evidence that they had been awarded improperly, but since the Department of Health and Social Care had failed to declare four ministerial meetings with the company and Hancock had failed to notify officials about several of his private messages with Paterson, it could not certify positively that they had been awarded correctly.

But cronyism was in fact an officially sanctioned modus operandi from the first weeks of the pandemic, when there was a global scramble for personal protective equipment (PPE). PPE suppliers with political connections were directed to a VIP “high-priority lane” for UK government contracts, where their bids were 10 times more likely to be successful than others, according to the NAO. Nearly 500 suppliers with links to politicians or senior officials were referred to this VIP channel, 144 of them by the private offices of Tory ministers, and 64 by MPs or members of the House of Lords, almost all also Tory.

Examples included Conservative party donor David Meller, a backer of Michael Gove’s Tory leadership bid, who won £164m in Covid contracts for the company he co-owned at the time after Gove referred it to the “VIP lane”. There was no impropriety, a Gove spokesperson said. Meller said he was extremely proud of his contribution to the PPE effort.

Ayanda, a “family office” finance house in London, was awarded two PPE contracts for a total of £252m after being referred to the VIP lane because its representative, Andrew Mills, was an adviser to Liz Truss, the then trade secretary. Officials pushed for the contracts to be processed fast, with one marking emails “VERY URGENT VIP ESCALATION”. Ayanda said it fulfilled the contract according to the specifications it was given.

Details of some of the lucrative Covid deals involving Tory connections are still emerging but the campaign group the Good Law Project has already challenged the use of the VIP lane in the courts and won a ruling that it was unlawful.

The courts also found that the then health secretary Matt Hancock’s failure to publish details of Covid contracts awarded within reasonable time was unlawful.

It was some of Hancock’s personal contacts who were in the spotlight when it came to contracts for the government’s £37bn NHS test and trace programme. Dido Harding was appointed to head the operation in May 2020 without any evident open process. Harding, a former chair of NHS Improvement, offered her services unpaid. She is married to the Tory MP John Penrose, who happened to be the government anti-corruption tsar. She was ennobled by her friend David Cameron in 2014, and was also a member of the Jockey Club, which had given Hancock, another horse racing enthusiast and local Newmarket MP, honorary membership of its prestigious rooms shortly after he was first elected in 2010. Randox is a Jockey Club sponsor.

Meanwhile, a former publican and ex-neighbour of Matt Hancock won £50m of government work supplying vials for the test-and-trace programme after sending a WhatsApp message to the health secretary, despite having no previous experience in manufacturing medical devices. Alex Bourne, who had owned the Cock Inn, near to Hancock’s old constituency home, was named as the sole subcontractor for the work in a DHSC Covid contract.

Hancock denied having any role in that contract, but his ministerial career came to an ignominious end when he was caught on CCTV camera in an embrace with Gina Coladangelo, an adviser and old university friend whom he had appointed as non-executive director of his department, apparently bypassing due process.

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Test, trace – and waste …

Harding’s test-and-trace operation was beset with repeated crises; by contrast the vaccine taskforce, chaired by Kate Bingham, was acknowledged as a great, life-saving success. Critics complained nevertheless that more open appointments and procurement, even in the emergency of the pandemic, were important to safeguarding government business from potential corruption.

The Johnson government also contracted research on its messaging and public opinion during the pandemic to four companies with links to the Tory party, Johnson’s then chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, or the Vote Leave campaign he ran during the Brexit referendum. Cummings agreed in a court challenge that one of these had been awarded because he knew the people involved, but argued they were the best for the job and extreme urgency justified the decision. The Good Law Project won a case ruling that this award was also unlawful, only for judges to overturn the decision on appeal.

The legal challenges over that contract and others continue, but in the court of public opinion the verdict is already in: under Johnson’s regime the Covid pandemic was a bonanza for those with the right Tory friends.


Felicity Lawrence and David Conn

The GuardianTramp

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