Dominic Cummings giving a lecture on integrity in government is like a cannibal telling you how to be a good vegan. When your subject is Boris Johnson, it’s worth paying attention. Few possess a more detailed map of where the prime minister’s skeletons are hidden than the man who was once his most important aide. Few have been in a better position to observe the way Johnson behaves when he thinks the world cannot see what he is doing.
The blog posted by Cummings on Friday night was an incendiary counterattack sparked by claims by Number 10 that he had been behind embarrassing leaks for the Conservative leader. This is revenge served spicy. Of the stink bombs he has thrown through Number 10’s mailbox, the accusation most likely to cut through the typical voter is that Johnson hatched a plan for conservative donors to secretly pay for the Downing Street flat renovation, which was “little ethical”. silly, possibly illegal and almost certainly broke the rules on the proper disclosure of political donations. “
The accusation that will most horrify Whitehall is that the prime minister tried to prevent an official investigation into a leak on the shutdown time that compromised the response to the pandemic. According to Cummings, Johnson wanted the investigation closed because the finger of suspicion was pointed at one of his fiancée’s close friends. His last shot is the tearful false comment: “It is sad to see that the prime minister and his office are so far below the standards of competence and integrity that the country deserves. I can’t recall an earlier example of a former senior adviser turning so savagely on the prime minister he used to work with.
Johnson’s defenders are saying this is bile from a bitter and twisted man who lost a power struggle at No. 10 late last year. That may be true, but it is also true that what you say about your former Blessing partner in the Brexit and Downing Street campaign is correct. The charge that the prime minister is a serial sleazy, a habitual liar and a ruthless offender who knows ethics only like a county east of London is little new. But the charge takes on significant force from a witness who was his most important assistant for 16 months and claims to have more to expose and detailed records to back up his allegations.
This culminated in a week that began with the launch of the WhatsApp exchanges between the Prime Minister and Sir James Dyson in which Johnson promised to “fix” a fiscal problem for the vacuum cleaner seller who supports Brexit. Rather than confess any regrets over this revelation that he can directly negotiate fiscal policy with the head of government if he is a billionaire lucky enough to possess the prime minister’s phone number, Johnson declares that he will “absolutely no apology“For agreeing to a tax exemption to involve Sir James’s company in the project to build more hospital ventilators. This “anything goes” defense in an emergency may sound familiar because it is not the first time it has been used as a shield against accusations of special favors for friends of the prime minister and his party. That alibi was also used when we discovered that a large portion of the lucrative Covid-related contracts ended up in the hands of friends of Conservative ministers, parliamentarians and colleagues who were granted access to a “VIP lane.”
An investigation by the National Audit Office found that deals using this top priority channel, which I previously called the Friends Express, were 10 times more likely to win business. Safeguards against abuse were relaxed and more than £ 10 billion were awarded in contracts without competitive bidding. The respected monitoring group, Transparency International, has just published an analysis that concludes that one in five of the Covid contracts signed between February and November 2020 generated one or more red flags of possible corruption.
The identity of many of the beneficiaries remains hidden because the government refuses to name the companies that received a large amount of public money, which is an eccentric way to behave if there is nothing to hide. As in the Dyson case, ministers have repeatedly justified the suspension of normal rules on the grounds that the pandemic created an urgent need to secure critical equipment. However, we are now learning that the “VIP lane” had the opposite effect. It did not lubricate the rapid delivery of vital supplies, but engulfs the pipeline. Evidence in a case brought by the Good Law Project that is being heard in superior court has yielded an email from a team official tasked with obtaining the protective gear. The anonymous official complains that the officials were “drowning in VIP requests and “high priority contacts” who “do not have adequate certification or do not pass due diligence.” Far from expediting the supply of desperately needed equipment, the lane reserved for fellow Tory undermined that life-and-death effort.
Labor is hammering away at the issue of “conservative sleaze” in the hope that it will ring in the ears of voters, but there is a view that this will not hurt the government as much as it should. The argument is that Johnson will not be hurt much because the expectation that he will misbehave is already “in the price.” Those who voted to confirm him as prime minister in 2019 knew they were choosing a rogue, not a saint. I hear this opinion expressed so much by indifferent Conservative MPs, who happily think that their leader is lacquered with a Teflon coating that makes him invulnerable to any scandal, no matter how dire. I also hear it from some desperate Labor MPs, in the words of one of them, “no matter how much we launch it, nothing really seems to stick.”
There is some evidence to support this in surveys. The Opinium poll we publish today has more people who agree that the prime minister is largely or completely corrupt than think it clean and honest, but the Conservatives enjoy a double-digit lead over Labor. This is because context matters. History suggests that voters are generally more tolerant of sleaze when they feel good about their own lives, much less forgiving when they feel miserable. The intensity of public outrage over the abuse of parliamentary spending was magnified because that scandal erupted at a time when many voters were suffering the consequences of the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent recession.
For the moment, the backlog of stories about cronyism and corruption is in a context that is favorable enough for Johnson that a significant portion of undecided voters are not overly exercised or willing to give him a pass. As more hits hit the arms of more people, he continues to enjoy a boost from the “vaccine bounce.” The hope that the country is emerging from its latest lockdown is another component of the government’s recent surge in popularity.
This context will change and become more threatening for the government when the vaccine euphoria wears off, business and labor support schemes unravel, and ministers implement some excruciatingly difficult decisions about how to pay the bill for the pandemic.
What will not fundamentally change is the character of the Johnson government. If you’ve missed the latest sleazy story, don’t worry, there will be another one in a minute. As I like to comment from time to time, the personality of the institutions is greatly influenced by the example set by the person above. When the prime minister is a man with a lifelong disregard for the standards of decent behavior and a professional track record of behaving as if he could get away with it, the government is going to reflect his amoral character. Never forget that Mr. Cummings was not fired when he went on his tours of Durham to break the lockdown, an example of “a rule for them” that powerfully pierced the public. They only parted ways months later, when the Svengali fell out with the prime minister’s fiancée.
A culture of impunity in which unethical behavior, no matter how outrageous, will never be punished, is practically a guarantee that something worse will come in the future. I can’t tell you how or when the Johnson administration will end, but it surely won’t be happily ever after. Sleaze may not catch up with conservatives tomorrow or next week or next month or even next year, but there will be a day of reckoning. To paraphrase Ernest Hemingway, governments go bankrupt in the eyes of voters gradually, then suddenly.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism