Don’t call it sleaze, call it corruption – why scandal haunts Boris Johnson’s government
From contracts for mates to flat makeovers and illicit parties, barely a day passes without a crisis at No 10. But using the tabloid language of the 90s doesn’t scratch the surface of this government’s sins
Think of bonking. Not the activity, but the word. As a shorthand for sex, it was popularised, if not invented, by the tabloid press in the 90s – back then, “Bonking Boris” referred to a former Wimbledon champion rather than a future prime minister. You can see why it appealed. “Bonking” slipped easily under the bar prohibiting expletives in family newspapers; it sounded fun rather than pornographic. It was clear and direct, yet had all the advantages of euphemism.
Now think of sleaze. As it happens, that word performed a similar role in the same period. It could be hurled at politicians – specifically the Conservative government of John Major – relatively free of legal risk. You could say an MP or minister was “mired in sleaze” without having to prove that they had broken a specific law. It was handy.
And it did great service in the 1990s. It became a catch-all for everything from criminal wrongdoing to an extramarital “three-in-a-bed romp” – to deploy another tabloid phrase of the age – and suggested moral decay in a Tory party that had been in power for the best part of two decades. It laid the ground for the landslide Labour victory of 1997, in part by suggesting that it was not only time for a change of government, but time for a clear-out, even a cleansing of our public life.
Now “sleaze” is back. “SHAMELESS MPs SINK BACK INTO SLEAZE,” roared the Daily Mail in early November (though taking care not to mention the MPs’ party affiliation: the paper was not yet ready to speak of “Tory sleaze”). Once again, as it was a quarter-century ago, sleaze is an umbrella word, under which can shelter a full range of sins. It extends from Boris Johnson’s wallpaper to the multibillion-pound PPE contracts handed out to politicians’ mates, from a prime ministerial holiday in Marbella to the installation of Tory allies in key public jobs.
But it’s the wrong word.
The explanation for why it’s wrong, and why that wrongness matters, is a tale of modern Britain, full of liars and lawyers, of cheats and chancers, of politicians on the make and on the take, of secret love affairs, mysterious middlemen and the perennial temptations of power, money and sex. It’s a story that reveals how much the politics of this country and its dominant party have changed – and how the crimes of the past have come to look almost quaint next to the much greater crimes committed in the here and now.
It starts in 1993 with Major’s closing address to the Conservative party conference in Blackpool. The party had been rocked by Black Wednesday a year earlier, a currency crisis that shook the public’s faith in what had been the Tories’ strongest suit: their reputation for economic competence. “The cabinet were thinking, ‘What can we do to bolster our credentials, particularly with our own people?’” Edwina Currie, a former minister, then on the backbenches, tells me. The answer was a return to Conservative first principles.
“The old values – neighbourliness, decency, courtesy – they’re still alive, they’re still the best of Britain,” Major told his audience. “They haven’t changed, and yet somehow people feel embarrassed by them. We shouldn’t be. It is time to return to those old core values, time to get back to basics, to self-discipline and respect for the law, to consideration for others, to accepting a responsibility for yourself and your family and not shuffling off on other people and the state.”
There was no mention of sex or single-parent families, but the talk of “responsibility” and “family” was enough to ensure the phrase “back to basics” was heard as a call for a return to Victorian standards of personal morality. It meant any deviation from that standard was evidence of hypocrisy, and therefore the legitimate subject of journalistic inquiry. The prime minister might as well have sent out stiff, embossed cards to Fleet Street’s tabloid editors, inviting them to rummage in the private lives of his MPs.
Currie smiles at the memory of it. She says that when “back to basics” was brought to the cabinet – she suspects it was the invention of John Redwood – the PM’s response should have been immediate. “What John Major should have done was look around the table with a slightly raised eyebrow and say, ‘Well, hands up everybody here who’s perfect, whose personal life is perfect.’” He would not have been able to raise his own hand: in the late 80s, he had had a four-year extramarital affair of his own with, as it happened, Edwina Currie. “That’s what’s called self-deception,” she says now.
A few months later, Major was desperately insisting that “back to basics” was not “a crusade about personal morality”, but by then it was too late. From the moment he had got to his feet in Blackpool, right until the election of 1997, it was open season. Each week seemed to bring another revelation of the gap between the Conservatives’ public rhetoric and the private reality.
It might be the news that junior transport minister Steve Norris had been having simultaneous affairs with three different women, in addition to the two long-term “mistresses” at his side before that, a situation captured by the red-top headline: YES, YES, YES, YES, YES, MINISTER!!! Or it could be the revelation that environment minister Tim Yeo had fathered a child outside marriage, even as he had spoken publicly of the need to reduce the number of single parents.
Hypocrisy was the thread that ran through and connected every one of these episodes. The Tories were the party of Section 28, prohibiting the “promotion of homosexuality” in schools. Yet the tabloids found that David Ashby MP had shared a hotel bed with a man on a rugby tour, Jerry Hayes MP had had a relationship with a much younger man and Richard Spring MP had been caught in bed with both a man and that man’s girlfriend. For a while in the mid-1990s, it became a Sunday ritual: open up the News of the World and see which Tory had been exposed as a raging hypocrite.
In among all that were revelations of wrongdoing of a quite different nature. The Guardian discovered that Neil Hamilton MP was being secretly paid by a lobbyist, and that he had received thousand of pounds – in cash, stuffed into envelopes – from Harrods owner Mohamed Al Fayed, in return for asking questions favourable to Harrods on the floor of the House of Commons. Other MPs were in the cash-for-questions business, too, but Hamilton soon became the face of the scandal, not least because he tried to deny it.
Later Hamilton was joined in notoriety by Jonathan Aitken, who had allowed aides of the Saudi royal family to pay his £1,000 bill for a stay at the Paris Ritz in September 1993 – a gift that was forbidden, given that he was the minister in charge of defence procurement at the time, and was therefore banned from receiving favours that might place him under an obligation. Like Hamilton, he denied the Guardian’s account of events, and was eventually jailed for perjury.
All of these stories were captured by the single word “sleaze”, and they set the tone for the 1997 campaign that swept Tony Blair to power. And yet talk now to Alastair Campbell, who served then as Blair’s press secretary, and you’ll hear him say two arresting things about the whole business.
The first is that Blair was a reluctant warrior against sleaze. “Tony was always worried about going on this,” he says. Not just the sexual stuff, but even the financial wrongdoing. “If all you go on is sleaze, the public will think that’s all you care about.” Campbell believes, incidentally, that there’s a lesson here for Keir Starmer: Blair kept himself slightly above the fray, leaving the sleaze talk to others, allowing the leader to focus on Labour’s core messages on crime, jobs and education.
But his second observation is the important one. “What this lot are doing is in a different league from John Major and his lot.”
He’s right. “Sleaze” is not the right label for the behaviour of Boris Johnson’s government, chiefly because that behaviour does not bear comparison with the scandals that felled the Major administration. Not because, as the Tory cheerleaders at the Telegraph or Express would have you believe, today’s misconduct is not as bad but, on the contrary, because it is much, much worse. Yes, the sexual revelations of the 1990s exposed a florid hypocrisy, while the Hamilton and Aitken affairs involved a serious betrayal of the public trust. But the charge sheet against Johnson is on a different scale. Hypocrisy is a theme once again, of course, typified by the Barnard Castleand Downing Street Christmas party rows – the government breaking the rules it had imposed on everyone else, in the latter case knocking back the booze and playing games while the rest of the country was locked down and, often, alone. But begin with the mildest accusations against the prime minister – which, paradoxically, are also the ones that have cut through most sharply to the public. What’s significant is that they relate not to no-mark backbenchers or previously unknown junior ministers, as most of the 90s stories did, but to the man at the top.
The matter of who paid for Johnson’s £840-a-roll designer wallpaper for his apartment in Downing Street, or for his holidays in Mustique or Marbella, may seem trivial, but it goes to an important question, the same one that proved Aitken’s undoing. If any minister, including the prime minister, receives something of value, then won’t they feel beholden to their benefactor? And if they do, then who, ultimately, will they be serving – the public interest or the person they owe?
Johnson’s long refusal to disclose the identity of his generous friends – only revealing under intense pressure that the No 10 refurb had been funded by Tory donor Lord Brownlow or that the provider of his luxury Spanish villa was the family of Tory peer Zac Goldsmith – adds to the concern. Why the reluctance to come clean if there’s nothing to hide?
Back in the 1990s, there were no such questions asked about the PM himself: it was all about his subordinates. Indeed – and this is the second key difference between now and then – when his ministers were found to have broken the rules, Major threw the book at them, eventually setting up a new standards process that has endured to this day. But when the ardent Brexiter and former cabinet minister Owen Paterson was found to have engaged in what was a forbidden, richly rewarded and “egregious case of paid advocacy”, to quote the Commons investigation into his lobbying, Johnson’s response was the very opposite: he didn’t throw the rulebook at Paterson but demanded his MPs vote to rip it up. He wanted to let Paterson off the hook. Only a national outcry forced him to back down.
Major himself drew the contrast when, in a rare intervention last month, he spoke of the “pain and anguish” he had endured over sleaze more than 25 years ago. “The striking difference is this: in the 1990s I set up a committee to tackle this sort of behaviour,” he told the Today programme. “Over the last few days we have seen today’s government trying to defend this sort of behaviour … It needs to be stopped.”
Still, what puts the conduct of the current administration into an entirely different category – one ill-suited to so gentle a term as sleaze – relates not to the dodgy behaviour of individuals, but to the conduct of the government itself. When you look at that, you realise the word “sleaze” will not do – that it minimises the problem, that it puts what’s happening now on a par with a Tory minister sucking the toes of his actress lover while wearing full Chelsea strip (to cite two details of the scandal that helped defenestrate then heritage secretary, David Mellor, both details invented out of whole cloth by publicist Max Clifford).
You look at that and you think: don’t call this sleaze, call it what it is – corruption.
To see the problem clearly, it pays to stare hard at the government’s response to the global pandemic that struck weeks after Johnson’s big election win in December 2019. In those first, panicked days of Covid, ministers scrambled to get hold of the personal protective equipment (PPE) doctors and nurses needed to stay safe: gloves, gowns, masks. To the public it looked like a wartime requisition drive, with Whitehall rightly stretching every sinew to ensure the frontline was properly protected.
But what the public didn’t see was that, to those in the know, that first surge of the virus was a gold rush. Entrepreneurs stampeded to reach new terrain that held apparently unlimited reserves of taxpayers’ money. What’s more, access to those riches did not require any knowhow or track record in PPE manufacture, but simply connections to the Conservative party.
The specific cases are eye-popping, brought into the daylight by, among others, the Good Law Project, an initiative founded and run by the Twitter-friendly former tax lawyer Jolyon Maugham. Having made a tidy fortune defending the often elaborate tax arrangements of the wealthy, Maugham now takes a salary that he describes as a “single-digit percentage” of his former earnings in return for exposing wrongdoing by government.
Gradually, crateloads of documents have come his way. Whether through leaks from whistleblowers, from within Whitehall or from companies who lost out on contracts, or handed to him as part of the legal process of suing the government, he has, he says, obtained enough pieces of the jigsaw “to make a pretty good guess at the picture”. And what a picture.
Take the case of pub landlord Alex Bourne, who famously went from pulling pints at Matt Hancock’s local to landing a slice of a £40m contract to make medical equipment, even though he had no experience in the field. Earlier this month, Hancock dismissed the story as a “fabrication pushed by the Labour party”. But then it emerged that Bourne’s lucky break had simply been well hidden. The Department of Health had signed a contract with a different entity, Alpha Laboratories. But in the small print there was a stipulation that the manufacturing of the goods had to be done by Bourne’s outfit. Nice work if you can get it.
Or there was the deal that saw at least £156m of taxpayers’ money wasted on 50m face masks eventually deemed unsuitable for the NHS. They were bought from a private equity firm through a company that had never produced a single item of PPE – or indeed anything for that matter – and that had a share capital of just £100. But this company, Prospermill, had a crucial asset. It was co-owned by one Andrew Mills, adviser to the government, staunch Brexiter and ally of the cabinet minister Liz Truss.
Somehow Prospermill managed to persuade the government to part with £252m overall, boasting that it had secured exclusive rights over a PPE factory in China. There was just one problem: the masks it produced used ear loops, when only masks secured around the head were deemed suitable for NHS staff. In the fight against Covid, they were useless.
The government’s own figures estimate that some £2.8bn was wasted this way, splashed out on goods and services that didn’t work. The government’s defence is, in effect, that there was a war on – that when faced with the urgent task of fighting a mysterious pandemic, there was no time for niceties. No time for competitive tendering or formal procurement processes: you needed to get the kit to the frontline and damn the details.
In Maugham’s view, once that decision had been taken, once the usual procurement rules – demanding that rival suppliers present competing bids to be assessed for quality and value for money – were suspended, corruption was always bound to follow. “If you ditch process, you’re going to have corruption,” he says. “That’s just inevitable.” What made the Covid bonanza different was that the government did not only make corruption inevitable, it “institutionalised that corruption”.
That’s not rhetoric, but an accurate description of what happened. Ministers created a VIP lane for their “contacts”, granting friends or party donors a fast track into the procurement process and a place at the head of the queue for those juicy contracts. Around 50 companies have been named as having benefited from the VIP lane, with Michael Gove, Grant Shapps, Hancock and others among the politicians who lent a helping hand in the form of an all-important referral. No less than £1.6bn worth of contracts were awarded as a result of referrals from just 10 Tory politicians. Those referrals were golden: if you got one, and found yourself in the chums’ club, you were more than 10 times more likely to bag a contract than those companies left outside.
And there was serious money to be made. One pandemic startup, PPE Medpro, won two contracts worth £200m a matter of weeks after it was born: its founder was a former business associate of Tory peer Baroness Mone. Meller Designs, then the firm of Tory donor David Meller, bagged over £160m in PPE deals, after a referral into the VIP lane from Gove. Cabinet office minister Lord Agnew was an especially useful friend to have in high places. Two companies referred by him won contracts that were, between them, worth more than £500m.
Some might shrugat all this, wondering if it really matters if politicians’ pals did well out of the pandemic, so long as British hospitals got the kit they needed. But there’s strong evidence that Britons were ripped off – with documents suggesting that some VIP bids were chosen even when they were charging way above market rates, and that government bought up equipment in far greater quantities than was needed, even when the panic of the first wave had passed. That was great for the lucky companies with high-powered friends, not so great for the taxpayer. Indeed, Maugham estimates that the government spent £12.5bn on PPE that it could have got for £4.5bn. “We’re talking vast amounts of waste,” he says. It didn’t have to be this way. “It’s not the inevitable corruption that comes when, at the time of national emergency, you put aside process in the interest of speed. It’s the institutionalisation of corruption to benefit your friends.”
But the VIP lane is not the only example of public goods being handed out to party friends. Note the astonishing run that has seen nine of the party’s former treasurers given a seat in the Lordssince 2010, with each of those appointed since 2014 having donated at least £3m to party coffers. In one case, the ermine was handed out in defiance of the advice of the Lords appointments body, which deemed Tory donor Peter Cruddas unworthy of a seat in the upper house – but Johnson ennobled him anyway. You can forgive Alastair Campbell for smarting as he remembers the cash-for-honours investigation into the last Labour government – which saw several leading Labour figures, including Blair, interviewed by police, but no charges brought against any of them – and contemplates the lack of action, or even coverage, today. “If this had been us, it would have been on the news day after day after day.”
Campbell mentions the Bernie Ecclestone affair, when it emerged that the Formula One boss had donated £1m to the Labour party in 1997, not long before the Blair government exempted the sport from a ban on tobacco advertising. Blair was forced to go on television to assure viewers that there had been no quid pro quo, no “cash for policy” deal; that he was, instead, a “pretty straight sort of guy”. Campbell insists that the Ecclestone affair was aggravated in part by a Labour desire not to replicate Tory misconduct: Downing Street deliberately avoided telling then health secretary Frank Dobson about the donation, “because we didn’t want that affecting his judgment” when drawing up the tobacco ban. All the same, he admits Labour got it wrong – and that it should have been “up front” about the money from the start. In the end, Labour gave the £1m back to Ecclestone, having sought the advice of the standards watchdog.
That has not quite been the approach of the Johnson administration. On the contrary, what adds to the gravity of the charges against it is its attempt to put itself beyond the reach of accountability or even the law. It has made repeated efforts to weaken or control those institutions that might restrain its power. Most direct are its serial threats to curtail judicial review, limiting the courts’ ability to check decisions of government. Early December brought word, unconvincingly denied, of an imminent drive to give ministers new powers in such cases to throw out judicial judgements that they don’t like.Whether or not this is born of Johnson’s desire to get even for the humiliation the supreme court inflicted on him in 2019 – unanimously defeating the PM’s prorogation of parliament – it looks like a clear effort to remove a curb on his might.
The regular swipes at the BBC, and the appointment of a longtime enemy of the corporation, Nadine Dorries, as culture secretary, should be seen the same way: as an effort to intimidate or cow a scrutinising institution that would ordinarily be outside government control. The same goes for its proposed “reforms” of the Electoral Commission, placing a hand around the throat of democracy’s referee. Attacks on the right to protest, changes to the Official Secrets Act targeting journalists and whistleblowers, the unveiled campaign to place ideologically loyal Tory allies into key public positions – just because they did not succeed in installing former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre as the chair of Ofcom should not obscure how hard they tried – are all part of the same pattern.
The aim is to corrode the checks and balances that make democracy function, to allow the government to do what it likes, for itself and for its allies, by ensuring those who might hold it to account – whether judges, press or protesters – are too weak to stop them. It ends in a government that is, in effect, beyond the law. This is why Campbell says, with some vehemence, “It’s not ‘cronyism’ or ‘chumocracy’ or ‘sleaze’. It’s corruption.”
But there is a curious paradox here. All this is so much more serious than the bonking stories of a generation ago, more serious than Hamilton and Aitken trousering a few grand or a night in the Ritz and then lying about it – Maugham says 90s sleaze is “quite sweet” by comparison; “it’s Famous Five does corruption” – and yet it struggles to break through. Perhaps much of it is too complicated to follow, too abstract. Perhaps, perversely, the sums of money are too large: maybe it’s easier to grasp the image of a Harrods envelope bulging with cash than it is to picture billions siphoned away via the VIP lane. It’s noticeable that it has been some of Johnson’s lesser, but more concrete, actions that have reached the front pages: the wallpaper and the holidays, rather than the institutionalised corruption and the dismantling of our democratic scaffolding.
Even last month’s row about Geoffrey Cox, whose lucrative legal practice saw him basing himself in the Caribbean, far away from his constituents in Devon, is an example of a kind of misdirection. Maugham says this was a case of “taking the piss”, rather than corruption, and yet it attracted more public outrage than Paterson’s work for Randox – as if the location of MPs’ extra-mural work was the problem, rather than the suspicion of influence-peddling. Somehow we get distracted, our gaze focusing on the wrong place.
But it’s not just a failure of public attention. “Sleaze” caught fire in the 1990s in part because it was not only left to the Mirror and the Guardian. The Tory papers ran with it too, drawn to stories that were just too juicy to resist, and convinced that Major and the Conservatives were washed up anyway. They have not yet definitivelyreached that conclusion about this government: the Tories have been in for a decade rather than a decade and a half, and Johnson has only been in Downing Street for two years. They have been, mostly, willing to give him a pass – although the leaked video of aides at No 10 giggling as they apparently recalled partying in defiance of Covid rules, and reports that several such parties happened in the prime minister’s residence, have pushed that patience to its limits. That matters because, in Britain’s media ecosystem, if the rightwing papers don’t cover a story, the broadcasters tend to steer clear of it, too.
There’s one last factor: shame. Sleaze became a subject of national concern in the 1990s in part because the prime minister regarded it that way. Attacks on the integrity of the Tory party got under John Major’s skin because he experienced them as attacks on his own integrity, which he valued. Currie recalls that Margaret Thatcher was so fastidious that when ministers met to talk politics, the PM insisted they chip in a few pounds from their own pockets to pay for the sandwiches. Boris Johnson is made of different stuff. (So, although he was better at disguising it, was David Cameron. Having warned in 2010 that “the far-too-cosy relationship between politics, government, business and money” was “the next big scandal waiting to happen”, the former PM took that cosiness to a new level: chummily texting ex-colleagues, including chancellor Rishi Sunak, as he hawked the services of Greensill Capital, the bank that collapsed into administration earlier this year, depriving Cameron of the $70m payout he had reportedly hoped for.) Of Johnson, Currie says he has “no moral fibre whatsoever”. Even the Tories’ candidate in the North Shropshire byelection, held to find a successor for Paterson, when asked four times whether he regarded the prime minister as a man of “honesty and integrity”, could not say yes.
So of course the outrage will not come from Downing Street, because the threat comes from Downing Street. The outrage will have to come from the public, the voters – and it begins by calling this menace to our democratic life by its name. Don’t call it sleaze. Call it corruption.