Despite the Greensill scandal Boris Johnson is unlikely to drain the swamp

That is the conclusion of a CNN analysis of the David Cameron/Greensill scandal published a few days ago. The drip feed of examples continues, and there are now seven inquiries in progress, so CNN’s judgement could be premature.

However, what caught Owl’s attention was the chilling reasoning: “the public repeatedly shows that its priority is getting through the pandemic at all costs. If at a time of crisis that means giving contracts to friends to get the job done, it’s unlikely to make a significant difference to support for the government.”

Analysis: A political scandal is swirling in Britain. But Boris Johnson is unlikely to drain the swamp

Analysis by Luke McGee, (Extract)

“It’s hard to find any way in which this doesn’t look phenomenally grubby, from the inside or outside. That might explain why current Prime Minister Boris Johnson has failed to publicly support Cameron, and has ordered an independent inquiry into his behavior.

However, anti-corruption campaigners in the UK are skeptical that any good will come of this inquiry.

“The UK’s real problem is that whilst we do have procedures in place to regulate lobbying and post-government appointments, they are just woefully inadequate,” says Daniel Bruce, chief executive of Transparency International UK.

Bruce points out that the two specific mechanisms that are relevant to the Cameron scandal are particularly weak.

First, the Register of Consultant Lobbyists, the only formal list of those lobbying the UK government, only captures people lobbying for companies or bodies who are external consultants. Bruce’s organization estimates that the vast majority “of lobbying is done by people who work directly for the person they are lobbying on behalf of,” says Bruce.

In the case of Cameron and Greensill, Cameron was a contracted employee for the firm, so sidesteps the register policy — which was introduced by Cameron’s government in the first place.

Second, Bruce points to the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, which advises whether or not people like Cameron should take postings once they have left office.

“This one is absolutely unfit for purpose. Even if it does find any wrongdoing, the worst punishment it can deliver is a strongly worded letter,” says Bruce.

Any inquiry into Cameron’s behavior is likely to find that he breached no rules. And if that inquiry fails to look at the broader issues surrounding lobbying — and the toothless bodies that regulate it — future scandals remain inevitable.

The inadequate rules on elected officials possibly cashing in on their position sadly extend to those who are currently in government, not just ex-officials who are looking to get rich post-office.

“The only real protection we have from government sleaze is an apolitical civil service telling ministers what they can and cannot do,” says Jolyon Maugham, director of the Good Law Project, a non-profit organization that uses law to protect public interest.

“Yes, we have a ministerial code, we have registers of financial interest. But breaching the ministerial code doesn’t mean you’ll get sacked. And very few MPs have stopped filling their pockets because of public shame,” Maugham adds.

The fact that the UK doesn’t have a codified constitution to protect against this kind of alleged abuse is a constant source of irritation for many. Maugham points out that “America is a modern country whose founders foresaw the potential for abuses of power, but the UK has never really had anything like that.”

The Cameron scandal comes at a time when there is pressure for Johnson’s government to address stories that during the coronavirus pandemic, it more often awarded lucrative government contracts to people connected with the administration. So, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Sunak’s involvement would be an extra source of aggravation for ministers trying to shake accusations of cronyism.

Indeed, the opposition Labour Party is already using the scandal to attack Sunak, a man who has variously enjoyed positive press for much of his response to the pandemic.

Bridget Phillipson, Labour’s Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, says that the Chancellor “is happy to stand in front of a camera when it suits him and splash public cash on boosting his brand, but won’t answer questions about his involvement in the biggest lobbying scandal for a generation.”

However, neither of these stories are likely to give Johnson the appetite to drain Westminster’s lobbying swamp.

“The public rarely pays attention to these stories because they already assume this level of corruption is happening,” says Ben Page, chief executive of polling firm Ipsos MORI. He adds that even in the case of the Covid cronyism, “the public repeatedly shows that its priority is getting through the pandemic at all costs. If at a time of crisis that means giving contracts to friends to get the job done, it’s unlikely to make a significant difference to support for the government.”

Government sources say that their own internal research shows similar results and that if the UK’s pandemic is over sooner rather than later, these sorts of scandals will be a minor issue compared to the public relief. A minister told CNN that they are confident that even if stories emerge that people connected to the government won contracts in a public crisis, they will be forgiving of the fact these were not normal times, especially in areas that have been successful, like the vaccine rollout.

Washington DC’s reputation for influential lobbyists is obviously justified. If it wasn’t, Trump’s anti-swamp rhetoric wouldn’t have found such a keen audience. But in reality, for all the money that exists in American politics, the UK trails behind when it comes to stamping down on this type of grubbiness.”