It’s not What You Know, It’s Who You Know…

By ZACH ROBERTS

It’s incredibly ironic, yet sadly unsurprising that it was former Prime Minister, David Cameron, who became the most recent political name behind a scandal in Westminster. Ironic because it was indeed Cameron himself who orchestrated the introduction of protections against this kind of underhand behaviour - proving that his measures are about as useful as a chocolate teapot.


Swiftly after the news of this murky affair broke there was a quick, and seemingly half-hearted, apology from Cameron who, it had been revealed, approached a number of government ministers, including the Chancellor, on behalf of Greensill Capital to lobby for a subtle rule change, allowing the company to receive emergency loans available to firms due to the pandemic. Thousands of firms and families have had to endure the brunt end of economic hardship during this pandemic, making it deeply infuriating to see former politicians and parliamentary acquaintances slip in through backdoors and bypass the red tape that the average Joe has put up with for the last 12 months. However, it is hardly shocking that almost exactly a year after the ‘Barnard Castle’ debacle, the government once again proved that it is not what you know, but who you know… and that sadly, in many cases there is one rule for them and another for the rest of us.


It was around 5 years ago that Dennis Skinner, former MP for Bolsover, was escorted out of the House of Commons for a jibe at the former PM, referring to him as ‘Dodgy Dave.’ While out of line in accordance with parliamentary etiquette, it seems Skinner was right. The fact that a former Prime Minister not only had the ability, but the audacity, to bypass his own lobbying rules shows just how deep-rooted a problem this is, in Westminster and in the Civil Service. It is now an integral part of any politician’s repertoire to possess an array of contacts spanning from former colleagues to civil servants, if they want to make something of themselves financially post-politics.


What is perhaps even more upsetting than the scandal itself, is the way that the recurring scandals plaguing the British government are simply swept under the rug. In the current cabinet, Robert Jenrick and Matt Hancock have allegedly facilitated contracts or tax relief for friends or Conservative party donors, Priti Patel has attempted to conceal several bullying allegations in the Home Office, and Boris Johnson himself ignored a report finding Patel had breached ministerial conduct. The PM has had his fair share too, most notably his affair with Jennifer Accuri and the financial sponsorship she secured while he was still Mayor of London.


The way in which there is rarely ever an admission of wrongdoing or guilt is in many ways worse than the actual incidents themselves. Less than a week after the Greensill news broke, it was swiftly followed by a similar ordeal, involving the current PM this time, and British entrepreneur James Dyson. Johnson was desperately seeking ventilator suppliers in March of last year, and a text conversation with Dyson showed that he was offering to fix an alleged issue with the tax status of his employees in exchange for Dyson supplying ventilators. Now some may argue desperate times call for desperate measures, but in the aftermath of this, Johnson insisted he would make “absolutely no apology at all”, showing just how normalised this ‘tit-for-tat’ culture is within politics. Some can perhaps point the finger at Dyson for taking advantage of government desperation last March, but either way it proves why the separation between business and political interests has to be made more explicit. Johnson knew full well what he was doing and how to do it, bending Cameron’s lobbying regulations in the same way that the former PM did for Greensill.


One would expect that an avalanche of scandals such as we have seen during the pandemic would work in the opposition’s favour, yet, staggeringly, support for the Labour Party has fallen to just 29% in the polls, the lowest during Keir Starmer’s leadership.


Is this a sign that political scandal is not of public concern? Or does the British public simply have bigger things to think about, especially given current circumstances?


Either way, it proves how entrenched this kind of behaviour is within our politics, so much so that it is normalised so much that it is hardly news anymore. We will probably see some kind of repair work in the coming weeks, but most of that is likely to be PR rather than patching the actual holes in our current lobbying rules and regulations.


While I am just about optimistic enough to still believe that some MPs that cross this moral line do so in an innocent or well-meaning manner, the issue remains that sleaze and scandal are an integral part of our politics. It is in almost no politicians’ personal interest to bring in new rules, or change the existing regulations against this kind of behaviour. Cameron proved that himself by manipulating the holes left in his own legislation for his own, and Greensill’s, gain.


Any legislative change is most likely performative rather than productive, to satisfy any outrage when these scandals emerge. Don‘t be surprised when nothing meaningful emerges from this, especially when the probe ordered by Johnson will be carried out by a lawyer, Nigel Boardman, who himself opposed Cameron’s lobby rule changes back in 2016. The report will most likely be swept under the rug, and if we are lucky, a piece of legislation will be rushed through Parliament, but ultimately scandals like these are nothing new, and they are here to stay.


Image: Flickr (Number 10)