It’s a casual, almost careless sort of corruption. Former Prime Minister David Cameron introduces his old school chum Hugh Warrender to all the right people to help him get the contract for Covid tests.
The same former Prime Minister texts his old ally Rishi Sunak, now Chancellor of the Exchequer, to get his business partner Lex Greensill preferential access to Covid loans – then brings him along to casual catchup drinks with Health Secretary Matt Hancock.
Boris Johnson, whose texts usually concern a different sort of illicit affair, gives his private number to vacuum billionaire James Dyson – who then makes his offer of life-saving ventilators conditional on good old-fashioned tax avoidance.
What’s striking about all three of these stories is how mundane they are. There’s no need for secret payments to anonymous offshore bank accounts or shopping bags full of cash. The conversations, in writing and on a regular unencrypted text message line, are full of in-jokes and abbreviations, lobbying for special treatment as casually as you might ask someone for a lift. For David Cameron and Boris Johnson, there was nothing unusual about them – nothing to fear, and nothing to hide.
As the revolving door swings on, and the divide between public services and privatised service providers becomes ever blurrier, ‘public interest’ and private profits become ever closer intertwined. One moment, Lex Greensill is at JP Morgan, working in supply-chain finance (essentially a euphemism for payday lending); the next, he’s David Cameron’s unpaid adviser, helping him implement supply-chain finance in Downing Street – through his old friends at JP Morgan. The next, the tables have turned – and Lex is building his own supply-chain finance business, with his very well paid adviser David Cameron by his side.
Civil servant Bill Crothers didn’t even need to wait for the door to revolve. In between his job as chief of government procurement, he also advised Greensill as he tendered for government contracts – and still found time to join Dave, Matt, and Lex for drinks.
To state the obvious: David Cameron was not paid shares worth up to £200 million for his investment advice. So what was he paid for?
Every corporate lobbyist promises to influence government decisions in return for a fee. This means that, almost by definition, every corporate lobbyist is either a fraud or a cheat. If he can’t influence government decisions, he’s a fraud, and the client has wasted their money; if he really can influence government decisions, he bestows an unfair advantage on his client, at the expense of everyone else, and is a cheat. How can he get away with it?
The Regulator Is a Joke
Anti-corruption in other countries is serious business. In Australia, for example, the Independent Commission Against Corruption can compel suspects to testify under oath, raid premises, and seize mobile phones and illicit fortunes, and it sends politicians to prison with noticeable regularity. That’s not to say that Australia is corruption-free, or that supposed anti-corruption policing isn’t itself abused by corrupt governments elsewhere – but things in the UK are in a dire state.
That’s in part because the UK’s Advisory Committee on Business Appointments is a joke. They admit they have no enforcement powers and depend entirely on politicians’ voluntary cooperation. When Boris Johnson went from being Foreign Secretary to being paid £275,000 for ten hours’ work a month by the Barclay Brothers, he simply ignored them. All ACOBA could do was get very, very angry, and write him a letter, telling him how angry they were.
The wily Bill Crothers once again did one better. He realised that he would have to disclose his job with Greensill to ACOBA if he took it up after leaving the public service, but not if he started his new job before he left the old one – a position of even greater conflict of interest.
Tragedy became farce when Johnson became Prime Minister, and had to choose the Committee’s new chair. He chose Eric Pickles, a failed Tory Cabinet Minister who was busted for claiming dodgy expenses. And with Pickles came Andrew Cumpsty—a lobbyist himself—on the basis that a group policing lobbyists should have experience of what it sought to police.
ACOBA isn’t just a useless regulator of conflicts of interest. It’s a walking, talking conflict of interest itself – and while it remains so, there’s nothing for corrupt politicians to fear, and nothing to hide.
The Other Side Isn’t Much Better
Shameless Tory corruption helped bring down the last Conservative government, and should be an easy win for an opposition leader – even one 14 points behind in the polls after 150,000 Covid deaths. But the right-wing clique currently running Labour do not want to have that conversation. They live in fear of a genuine crackdown on influence peddling – which is why Peter Mandelson spent the past week frantically briefing that a little bit of corruption isn’t that big a deal.
The most obvious examples of Blairite moral bankruptcy are the MPs who formed the failed Change UK. Neoliberal shadow Chancellor Chris Leslie was never that welcome in the Labour Party – and has now ascended to his final form as a lobbyist for debt collectors. Angela Smith is living proof that, if you lobby hard enough against nationalising water, you too can be rewarded with a seat on the board of a private water company.
It would probably be unfair for Greensill’s old firm JP Morgan to blame their new Managing Director Chuka Umunna for the total collapse of their proposed Super League, but they’re smart enough to notice his remarkable knack for turning everything he touches into shit. Of course these failed politicians are paid in the hope of peddling influence – because otherwise, what on earth are they being paid for?
When it happens in Britain, we call it sleaze; when it happens in any other country, we call it by its proper name – corruption. That nice rhetorical trick obscures the fact that a different politics could exist: one in which politicians are not only separate from the corporate interests that harm our lives, livelihoods, and planet, but actually work to limit their malign influence. In fact, as the revolving door spins, it’s sometimes easy to forget a significant truth: there’s really no reason for business and politics to be closely intertwined at all – that is, of course, beyond personal greed.