While the UK’s record on corruption is good, many recent abuses have been hiding in plain sight.
“We all know how it works. The lunches, the hospitality, the quiet word in your ear, the ex-ministers and ex-advisers for hire, helping big business find the right way to get its way.” So said David Cameron in 2010, in a speech on lobbying shortly before he became prime minister.
A decade on it has become painfully clear that the former leader did indeed know how it worked. In recent weeks Cameron has seen his reputation savaged amid details of his lobbying efforts on behalf of the financier Lex Greensill. Each day has brought new revelations about the relationship between the government and Greensill Capital, the supply chain finance company which collapsed last month.
As premier, Cameron allowed Greensill to work from Downing Street — where he styled himself a senior adviser — on a scheme of no clear value to government. Then, after leaving politics, he joined Greensill as a paid adviser and in that role lobbied ministers for the now collapsed business.
His private texts to the chancellor Rishi Sunak would have been worse had Treasury officials not ultimately rejected the appeals. Former officials have been stunned to hear that a senior civil servant in charge of government procurement was allowed to work for Greensill while still in Whitehall. Facing mounting pressure, the government said this week it would launch an inquiry into the affair.
One Tory MP publicly described Cameron’s behaviour as “a tasteless, slapdash and unbecoming episode for any former prime minister”.
And yet perhaps the most disturbing aspect is that it is not certain anyone has broken any rules. As with previous scandals the affair has exposed gaps in regulations. And while the details have shocked, the underlying behaviour exists almost in plain sight. A primary purpose, after all, of putting a senior politician or official on your payroll is the doors they can open.
Keir Starmer, the leader of the opposition, seeing a chance to tie Boris Johnson to the misconduct of his predecessor, said the scandal is “just the tip of the iceberg”. He added: “Dodgy contracts, privileged access, jobs for their mates, this is the return of Tory sleaze.”
So how deep is the malaise? Most British leaders like to congratulate themselves on the general cleanliness of the country’s politics, especially when they glance across the Channel at the illustrious list of French politicians with criminal convictions or look at the vast sums of money spent in American election campaigns.
Yet the UK’s record is good rather than great. On Transparency International’s global corruption rankings the UK is just outside the top 10 cleanest nations, ranking joint 11th out of 180, behind New Zealand, Singapore and a number of European nations including Germany, the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries. For Bernard Jenkin, the Tory MP and former head of the Public Administration Committee: “Eleventh is good, but we want to keep improving”.
On the current scandal, he told the BBC: “It’s been a culture in Whitehall that’s been building up for a long time . . . this very informal way of conducting relationships about very important matters and the distribution of public money.”
Duncan Hames, a former MP now policy director of Transparency UK, says: “When you look at integrity in public life there are a number of indicators around the relationship between money and politics — lobbying, the revolving door and political donations. Britain has problems in all three of these.”
Ever since the 1994 cash-for-questions scandal, when a lobbyist paid MPs to ask parliamentary questions, helped sink John Major’s government, the UK has incrementally updated the previously informal rules but progress has been faltering. That affair led to the creation of the Committee on Standards in Public Life and tougher regulations on lobbying.
Rules on MPs’ personal expenses were tightened after a 2009 scandal which revealed widespread abuse — again this was largely unquestioned in Westminster where the expenses were seen as compensating MPs for their largely stagnant salaries.
Regulations on political donations and electoral spending have been tightened several times, including after the so-called Bernie Ecclestone affair which saw Tony Blair’s Labour party abruptly exempt Formula 1 from a 1997 ban on tobacco advertising, just months after Labour received a £1m donation from the motorsport magnate, and shortly after a meeting between the two men. Mr Blair and his close team faced a police inquiry in 2007 — though it ended without charges — over the “cash-for-honours” affair in which several men nominated for peerages were discovered to have lent money to the Labour party.
Yet, while selling honours is a crime, the elevation of donors and allies to the House of Lords (where financial disclosure is less rigorous) continues. As recently as last December, Johnson overruled a scrutiny committee after it opposed a peerage for Peter Cruddas, a former Tory party treasurer. Johnson’s most recent honours list also included peerages for two former editors and a newspaper proprietor.
Political donations remain a weak spot. “It is common practice among political parties to raise funding through opportunities to get close to senior politicians and this is even formalised in dinner clubs or events at party conferences,” says Hames. “It is basically cash for access. Those involved consider it worth their while.”
The notion of cash for access was highlighted last year when Robert Jenrick, the communities secretary, intervened to approve a housing development after sitting next to the scheme’s backer, and a Tory donor, at a dinner. He was later forced to reverse his decision.
All sides agree that businesses and interest groups must be allowed to put their case but, while Cameron did tighten up the rules on lobbying, his reform was narrow enough not to include his later self. (As Cameron was employed by Greensill, rather than working as an outside consultant, he was not required to register as a lobbyist.)
While ministers are expected to maintain records of meetings with lobbyists and interest groups, records are not kept of the informal text messages and calls — the method Cameron himself often used.
Other age-old political practices remain common. Johnson has attracted renewed criticism for channelling government money to areas of electoral benefit, most recently over a £3.6 billion fund for towns for which the criteria appear to heavily favour Conservative constituencies.
Change in values
But the most pressing issue now is the revolving door between government and the private sector, an issue afflicting many nations, but which has been made more complex by the changing nature of public service.
Civil servants increasingly are encouraged to gain business experience while ministers’ careers often end well before retirement age, leaving them searching for a more lucrative second act. Lord Eric Pickles, chair of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, which vets moves of senior politicians and civil servants, warned this week of a culture where “the existing cohort looked after the cohort that just left, on the assumption that the cohort coming up would look after them”. Acoba is widely seen as toothless and Pickles noted that last year it vetted 108 people out of 34,000 civil service departures.
The genesis of the current scandal lies in efforts started by Cameron and continued by Johnson to change the culture in Whitehall. The moves to bring in outsiders to shake up what was seen as an inefficient and obstructionist Whitehall were led by Francis Maude, a cabinet office minister under Cameron. The background was the era of austerity and the need to find substantial savings.
There is nothing to suggest any wrongdoing in this aim, but in the words of one senior civil servant from that period: “Those brought in to shake things up did not have the same values as long-term civil servants and the culture of contempt towards Whitehall generated within the civil service a defensive crouch and low self esteem which made them unwilling to challenge actions they felt were wrong.”
The cowing of the civil service has accelerated under Johnson. His former chief strategist, Dominic Cummings, promised a “hard rain” would fall on Whitehall, while allies drew up hit lists of leading officials.
Change has also led to a new class of public figure, neither civil servant nor even traditional political adviser, brought in often without reference to rules on outside interests. This has led to charges that Johnson has succumbed to what critics call a “chumocracy” in which jobs, contracts and public funds are awarded to friends and allies. This trend accelerated during the pandemic when ministers had the defence that life and death decisions had to be made at speed.
Jill Rutter, a former senior civil servant and senior fellow of the Institute for Government, notes the risks: “The cronyism debate has subsided a bit because of the success of the vaccines task force, but you do have these jobs — the crown representatives, ad hoc roles, department non-execs, and unregulated appointments — and at the very least we need to look at how you manage conflicts of interest.”
This is seen as key because the lead set by the prime minister and his close ministers is central to standards of government. One former official notes of both Cameron and Johnson: “There is a sense of entitlement from them that these rules are fine but they are for others.”
Concern over process, appointments and contracts has powered the creation of the Good Law Project, a group which challenges what it sees as abuse of process in the courts. Its founder Jolyon Maugham, a fierce government critic, says: “The UK has no rules to protect it from venal politicians. We have a set of cultural norms overseen by the civil service. But the civil service feels disempowered and so its ability to oversee these norms is diminished.”
Johnson has flouted numerous conventions, including during the Brexit negotiations when he sanctioned legislation to violate an international treaty. More recently he has been found to have privately been seeking donations to fund the refurbishment of his Downing Street flat.
It all reinforces a point made by Bob Kerslake, a former head of the home civil service: “Our current model depends to a large degree on the prime minister following, understanding and respecting the rules and maybe in the light of recent experience we might want to ask the question of whether a system that depends on that is sufficient.”
One can overstate the depth of the malaise. But British politics is not as spotless as its practitioners would wish. The first step towards cleaning it up might be to take a closer look at behaviours which are, too often, in plain sight.
Written by: Robert Shrimsley
© Financial Times
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