If public life goes unregulated, just who will hold politicians to account?
2nd May 2021

Boris Johnson has a sense of entitlement where a sense of morality should be. Put a man like that in charge of a well-governed country and anti-corruption investigations follow. Put him in charge of this country and, instead of detectives with warrants, we have chums looking at chums, morally compromised arbiters and intimidated watchdogs.

It is now a cliche for political journalists to write that Conservative voters have “baked in” Johnson’s sleaziness, as dopeheads bake in hash to a brownie. I will leave it to Conservative readers to say whether the insulting conviction they don’t care about charlatanry and crookedness is true. I will leave it to lawyers to say whether the defence “you cannot jail my client, your honour, the public has baked in his guilt” has ever worked in court.

I will stick with the underexplored topic of how the civil service and Tory party have baked in defences against accountability that Johnson is exploiting and will always exploit until he is out of Downing Street.

For the best answer to the assertion that the public does not care about sleaze is: “It will, mate.” Johnson has demonstrated his belief that rules are for the plebs throughout his life. As for his fiancee, Carrie Symonds, when Helen MacNamara, the Cabinet Office’s director of ethics, questioned her Marie Antoinettish interior design bills, Johnson’s spin doctors briefed that MacNamara would be moved from her job. (She left the civil service instead and I don’t blame her.)

Add in that every rich man who wants a favour or a peerage knows the prime minister and Symonds are desperate for cash and the Johnson administration would always be a rolling scandal. If it wasn’t this, it would be something else. Indeed, it soon will be something else.

While we wait for the next gravy train to arrive, let’s look at how the government has enfeebled the regulation of public life. Its advisory committee on business appointments has never once told a former minister, special adviser or civil servant not to take a lucrative job because the dangers of trading on inside information are too great. Its indulgence is just as well because the board has no powers to enforce its judgments or impose punishments on ex-public servants in potentially corrupt relationships. Johnson, meanwhile, appointed a former partner at a corporate law firm that lobbies for government contracts to oversee the Greensill corporate lobbying scandal. Maybe Nigel Boardman, who still acts as a consultant for Slaughter and May, will astound us by tearing into David Cameron and the senior civil servants who served Lex Greensill. Until he does, cynicism is realism.

In the matter of his extravagant living quarters, Johnson has asked Simon Case, the cabinet secretary he appointed, to review the refurbishment. Lord Geidt, the adviser on ministers’ interests Johnson appointed last week, will presumably investigate too.

A Geidt inquiry will be futile. Sir Alex Allan, the last adviser on minister’s interests, resigned because Johnson refused to act on his finding that Priti Patel shouted and swore at Home Office civil servants. As for Case, at first sight he just needs to ask why Johnson won’t say where the money came from. There are two possible answers. Either Johnson is harrumphing in his characteristic “rules aren’t for great men like me” manner and doesn’t see why he should answer or he has taken more, perhaps far more, than the £58,000 currently said to have come initially from the Tory donor Lord Brownlow.

What can Case do if he finds impropriety? He cannot force Johnson to resign or pay a fine or turn himself in to the police. Case is a creature of prime ministerial patronage. Johnson would fire him rather than obey him.

Case is also from a senior civil service regarded with growing suspicion and not only because of the Greensill scandal. The first sign that Symonds was turning from fiancee into Beyoncé came last July when the Cabinet Office asked Keir Starmer’s office for Alistair Darling’s contact details. It wanted the former Labour chancellor to front a charitable trust with the ever-busy Brownlow to pay for work on Downing Street. Darling refused because he thought donors to the charity would expect favours in return.

That was the end of the matter. Or so it seemed until last week, when the government used a brief conversation with a civil servant that went nowhere as political cover. The frontbench said “it had engaged with the leader of the opposition’s office in July” on plans to seek private donations for No 10. Why did the civil service allow them to imply there was a cross-party consensus where none existed?

With the civil service compromised and the adviser on ministerial interests ineffective, the Electoral Commission and parliamentary commissioner for standards are the only bodies short of the police that can hold Johnson to account and the Conservatives know it.

They have been gunning for the Electoral Commission ever since it investigated Tory MPs and Vote Leave supporters. Amanda Milling, co-chair of the Tory party, said the government wanted to either abolish it or undertake wholesale change. Its staff and commissioners deserve huge credit for standing up to the pressure and announcing an investigation into the party’s compliance with the law on political donations.

It can impose fines and call in the police. I wonder if the Conservatives would make good on their threat to abolish it if it did.

Which leaves the parliamentary commissioner for standards, Kathryn Stone, who may soon be investigating Johnson’s relationship with the munificent Brownlow. She is already looking at Johnson’s failure to declare the correct details of who paid for his holiday to Mustique in 2020. As I said before, if it’s not one thing with Johnson it’s another and there will always be another another until he’s gone.

Here’s the rub. Stone can recommend the Commons suspend Johnson but the Conservatives can use their majority to frustrate her. It would be a defining moment if they did: a statement that a party that once stood for traditional morality had baked in privilege and venality until it has reduced itself to ashes.

Nick Cohen is an Observer columnist

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