Join Hafta-Ichi to Research the article “Cronyism in Britain is rampant and goes unpunished. We’re turning into a banana republic | Conservatives”
The sums are so vast, the secrecy so shocking, that “chumocracy” doesn’t begin to capture what Britain has become – redolent as we are of banana republics, the Russian oligarchy, and failed states. Lost is that British self-image as the bowler-hatted beacon of civic rectitude, as our erstwhile Rolls-Royce civil service goes the way of, well, Rolls-Royce, no longer a British-owned car company.
The Good Law Project, the admirable not-for-profit public-cleanser, last week proved in the high court that the government had breached what the judge called the “vital public function” of transparency over “vast quantities” of taxpayers’ money. A VIP fast-lane for protective equipment contracts made the contacts of ministers, MPs, peers and officials 10 times more likely to win contracts. PPE prices sky-rocketed: even bodybags were being charged at 14 times their previous cost. The Good Law Project’s demands for publication of those favoured suppliers, their VIP sponsors and prices paid has been denied so far.
Why the secrecy? The Guardian has already revealed that the medical regulator is investigating Alex Bourne, health secretary Matt Hancock’s ex-neighbour, who won a £30m contract for medical vials, with no previous experience.
In the panic over empty PPE shelves in hospitals and care homes, that dash to procure might be forgiven were it not that favours to friends is the everyday modus operandi for Boris Johnson. But before a litany of his civic shame, pause here to enjoy this, the foreword he wrote to the ministerial code: “There must be no bullying and no harassment; no leaking; no breach of collective responsibility. No misuse of taxpayer money and no actual or perceived conflicts of interest. The precious principles of public life enshrined in this document – integrity, objectivity, accountability, transparency, honesty and leadership in the public interest – must be honoured at all times; as must the political impartiality of our much admired civil service.” Ha!
Alex Allan felt it impossible to stay on as the prime minister’s official adviser on that code, after his finding against the home secretary, Priti Patel, for bullying was rejected. Nor could Jonathan Jones remain as permanent secretary to the government legal department while Johnson broke international law with the internal market bill. Altogether, under Johnson six permanent secretaries have gone – not so permanent in this regime.
The Good Law Project now also seeks a judicial review into the Guardian’s revelation of a £564,000 contract for opinion polling, given without tender to Dominic Cummings’ close chum Rachel Wolf, who co-wrote the 2019 Tory party manifesto. What an irony that in her Downing Street days she planned for all civil servants to face constant exams to guard against a culture where “everyone rises to their position of incompetence”. Yet she was put to no test, not even basic tendering for a fat contract.
The Sunday Times reveals that Lord Udny-Lister, as deputy mayor of London under Johnson, helped approve £4bn of property schemes for developers – and within months of leaving office went on to work for them. As Downing Street strategic adviser last year, he stayed on their payrolls, though this was in compliance with codes of conduct.
In a blast at Tories “rife with conflicts of interest”, Rachel Reeves, the shadow cabinet office minister, made a “sack Serco” pledge that Labour would return private contracts to the public sector. Yet it seems nothing shames this government. The National Audit Office is a fine institution for checking on financial integrity and value for money. But, though it found that business owners with political ties to the Tories were given high-priority status over pandemic contracts, it has no machinery to force a government that doesn’t give a damn to act on these findings. Which leaves the public-spirited crowdfunders of the Good Law Project as a last stand against collapsing civic integrity. Although, as Hancock told the BBC’s Andrew Marr, he doesn’t even care that he’s broken the law.
The commissioner for public appointments, Peter Riddell, all too rarely makes public protests, but recently he rose up against “unregulated appointments”, such as Tory peer Dido Harding to head the chaotic test and trace programme. Last week the health department’s own evidence showed the £22bn she has spent had had a “relatively small” effect. Riddell also protested against stacked interview panels: utterly unqualified ex-Tory MP James Wharton was appointed head of the Office for Students by a selection panel devoid of higher education experts.
Four non-executive directors appointed as “independents” to oversee Michael Gove’s Cabinet Office are all Gove allies, including Gisela Stuart of his Vote Leave clan. According to a recent survey, omore than half of all departmental board appointments, far from being independent outsiders, are special advisers and close political allies.
Riddell lobbed a warning at briefings that the Ofcom chair will go to the former Mail editor-in-chief Paul Dacre, a man rabidly biased against the BBC, judges, Europe and migrants, to name just a few. Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s good chum, the Tory donor Richard Sharp, was made BBC chair. Why no investigation into communities secretary Robert Jenrick’s improper initial intervention to help Tory donor Richard Desmond avoid tax over a £1bn planning bid? Not only this, but packing the Lords with donors is the Putinesque new normal.
Not since the 1853 Northcote-Trevelyan civil service reforms has a government so impudently and defiantly ignored appointments principles. Had Labour committed any of these outrages, the Tory press would have hounded it to death. Remember Jennifer Arcuri, Johnson’s “close friend”, given £10,000 from his London mayoral fund and invited on potentially lucrative trade missions? The Independent Office for Police Conduct found that the officers making decisions on sponsorship and trade missions knew of this relationship, “and this influenced their decision-making”. Imagine if that were Keir Starmer.
Clean democracies are defined by how well they guard against their leaders favouring family and friends. But the essence of chumocracy runs far deeper. People instinctively appoint their own kind: “merit” tends to be spotted only in those who talk, think and believe like those doing the choosing. In a wild blog, Dominic Cummings pretended to break out of this straitjacket, calling for “super-talented weirdos” with “genuine cognitive diversity”. But no, his rambling job ad required economics graduates with “an outstanding record at a great university”: he was a prince among tribal chum-appointers.
Breaking the spirit of favouritism is ferociously hard: when I was at the BBC, a valiant attempt was made to recruit raw talent outside top graduates with manicured hinterlands. Ads, leaflets and notices were posted in hairdressers, pubs, McDonald’s, mosques, temples and on buses: no name, education or experience, just write to us with your programme ideas. Thousands applied.
When these had been whittled down to 30, the disappointed selectors found they had mainly picked identical top graduate types. By instinct, unconsciously, they chose the kind who wrote like them, thought like them. Unconscious bias courses help us understand inbuilt prejudices, but eradicating it from deep within is far harder.
Due process in public appointmens matters not just for good government, but because it sets a benchmark of fair employment. Nepotism stinks as badly as awarding contracts to VIP pals: glorying in both, the government, rotting from the head, spreads the stench of corruption through everything it touches.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Cronyism in Britain is rampant and goes unpunished. We’re turning into a banana republic | Conservatives