Argument

We've Been Here Before

Tory sleaze and cronyism is nothing new — it is a by-product of a party too comfortable with political power and little accountability.
By
Zeyd Anwar
Founder and editor-in-chief of Res Publica
Number 10
May 7, 2021
H

ere we are again. A Conservative Party riddled with cronyism and sleaze. Multibillion pound contracts given to Tory donors, family and friends. A chancellor of the exchequer lobbied by a former prime minister. And now the prime minister himself, texted by the billionaire and Tory donor, James Dyson, over concerns about British tax rules. “I will fix it [tax rules] tomo!” Johnson texted Dyson. “…I am the first lord of the treasury and you can take it that we are backing you to do what you need.”

The behaviour of the Conservative Party, in some ways, holds parallel with the 90s. John Major’s Back to Basics Campaign — designed to appeal to traditional values of “neighbourliness, decency and courtesy” soon became ridiculed by previous and successive scandals belonging to Tory MPs. But there holds a key difference between the sleaze of the 90s and Johnson’s government. Aside from the cash-for-questions scandal and Jonathan Aitken — who lost everything over an overnight stay in the Ritz — the majority of scandals in Major’s government arose from backbenchers and related to episodes of personal infidelity. Johnson’s cronyism has struck at the heart of British government, involving not only involving the most senior political office, but numerous cabinet ministers.

Tory sleaze is a consequence of Johnson, true — but it is also a by-product of a party too comfortable with political power. After ten years of Conservative rule, gaslighting, falsities, misrepresentations and a weak opposition, it has understood normal standards of behaviour — whether ministerial or those that apply to governments — no longer hold. Scandalous behaviour does not result in adverse consequences. Ministers do not feel the need to resign or apologise. In fact, the opposite is true: the party continues to be rewarded politically. Nowhere is this clearer in the upcoming Hartlepool by-election, where the Conservatives, at the time of writing, currently lead by a respectable margin.

But it is also a problem of accountability. Johnson’s government has shown a disdain for scrutiny. It has attempted to remove political reporters deemed unfit from Downing Street briefings, and has successfully appointed political sympathisers to the head of the BBC. Sunak and Johnson have met numerous times with Rupert Murdoch, owner of the Times and the Telegraph, and British media have systematically misrepresented the opposition in attempts to deflect attention.

The disease of cronyism and sleaze at the heart of British government is a extremely damaging one, for democracy and standards of public life. But it should also be seen in a wider context of British politics — of a media and political climate that has failed to hold an increasingly arrogant and power-drunk government to account.

Zeyd Anwar is the founder and editor-in-chief of Res Publica
@zeydanwar

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