What is the significance of “Tory sleaze”?

A series of incidents have made the news where Conservative party officials, and especially their leader, Boris Johnson, have had a questionable regard for compliance with rules. Labour think they are on to something by raising the spectre of “Tory sleaze”. Are they?

Well yes if the audience is liberal professional types. They equate cronyism and nepotism with corruption and inefficiency, and understand that their own careers can be badly damaged by a disregard for compliance, and assume that politicians should play to the same rules. But do things look quite the same way to everybody else? Are the rules just there as a means to an end, and shouldn’t we look to the results first and foremost?

This was brought home to me when I read a history of the Royal Navy. Back in the 18th Century and into the Napoleonic Wars and the era of Horatio Nelson, it was one of the most effective large organisations on the planet – a considerable feat since command and control was often very dispersed. This was founded on a system of rewarding effective performance. The key to this was the prize system, whereby the money made from captured ships (“prizes”) was divided between the ship’s captain, officers and crew. (As an aside this was not dissimilar to the other highly effective institution of the era: Napoleon’s French army). The captain had control over the recruitment of his ship’s complement. And nepotism and cronyism was rife. How to reconcile this? Captains still recruited highly effective crew – but nepotism and cronyism was the simplest way of hiring people they knew and could trust. But if your cousin or other contact wasn’t up to the job, they would be moved on at the first opportunity. For many that is still true. The key is whether the organisation’s leaders are truly and directly accountable for the success of their organisation. The reason why cronyism is lethal in public service is because there is no equivalent system of direct, financial accountability, such as with the old Navy’s prize system, or with profits in a small or medium-sized business – where nepotism and cronyism is also widely practised.

So what to make of the current Conservative government’s difficulties over cronyism, especially amongst the urgencies of dealing with covid-19? They claim that in the crisis government ministers were making shortcuts to get things done. And if some of the the bureaucrats were uncomfortable, that just shows how ill-equipped thy are for emergencies. The Conservatives under Boris Johnson are not starting with a great of credibility on this however. Before the pandemic, the actions of minister Robert Jenrick on a property development after lobbying from a party donor shocked many, including me, but were simply shrugged off by the Prime Minister. Still, we should try to focus on the facts, not simply what we expect.

In fact enough the most recent row, over WhatsApp exchanges between Mr Johnson and entrepreneur James Dyson, is capable of being interpreted as “getting thing done”. Mr Dyson has a formidable reputation as a practical engineer; there was a genuine panic at the time (actually misplaced in hindsight) about the lack of ventilators, so there would have been nothing wrong if the government had called Mr Dyson for help, or if they had responded positively to an offer for help from him. The situation of Mr Dyson’s enterprise being based overseas is relatively unusual for a British company, so helping out with tax paperwork could be fine. The prior relationship between the two men doubtless helped, but I find it hard to see this as the government doing a favour for a friend. Labour has to do what it does, by trying to make the most of it, as that is how politics is done. The Tories would hardly be different if the roles were reversed. But this is either faux outrage or a failure to understand what was actually going on.

But what about the “VIP list” of businesses bidding for urgent contracts for personal protective equipment (PPE) early in the emergency? The urgency was real, and the need to simplify procurement procedures was doubtless justified. But did the VIP list help? This time the circumstantial evidence looks negative. The VIP list seems to be based purely on businesses being well-connected; there is no sense that they were being selected on the basis of any relevant competence. I had my reservations at the time about government procurement, and I still do. The process looks to have been too centralised and too detached from the people who actually needed the PPE. But this really needs to be picked apart by the sort of enquiry the government keeps putting off until the day after tomorrow. The point here is that is not that delegated procurement and streamlined procedures would have reduced cronyism. Indeed cronyism is the dark side of localism, and one that its advocates often neglect, myself included. But local cronyism in the circumstances of crisis, when results are short-term and obvious, is not necessarily all that harmful, as in the Royal Navy in the 18th Century. In some circumstances, if driven by the right sort of leadership, it can even be the best thing to do. The problem with the government’s procurement was that those taking the decisions, and pushing forward their proteges, were too distant from the outcomes to have an incentive to do the job well. Anyway, the VIP list was apparently far too long; it isn’t hard to imagine the feeding frenzy of businesses who could claim even a vague connection, and the lack of an incentive, or criteria, for the gatekeepers to say “not you”. The result is certainly that some inappropriate suppliers were picked; it is also probable that some people who could have helped out more effectively never got the call.

The next thing to consider is the lobbying by former Prime Minister David Cameron on behalf of Greensill Capital. On the face of it there is not much to be excited about: the lobbying failed to get extra financial support for Greensill. It is hardly surprising that Mr Cameron had privileged access. The more important question is how far Greensill had got into government procurement before the pandemic. It’s hard to understand what need the government had for a finance provider. More needs to be dug up about the relationship – but the issue isn’t just cronyism, it’s the degree of grasp of government ministers and civil servants of administrative processes. The former tend to have little commercial or organisation experience; the latter draw a false distinction between high status “policy” and lowly “implementation”. Greensill seems to have been inserting itself into the “implementation” side of things, which senior civil servants don’t feel they need to dirty their hands with.

The other issue doing the rounds on the general subject of “sleaze” is how the Prime Minister financed improvements to the Downing Street apartment, which wasn’t posh enough for his tastes. The careful wording of his spokespeople suggests that there is something to hide. But it does not appear as if public money, or much of it, was wasted here, though. The main issue is whether the Prime Minister broke rules on disclosure. I find it hard to get excited about it.

So far it doesn’t seem to be cutting through to the public. The attitude seems to be that, “They are all at it, so it doesn’t influence my vote.” They aren’t all at it in fact – but it doesn’t cut cleanly across party lines. You couldn’t get more prim and proper than Mr Johnson’s Tory predecessor, Theresa May. And Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair was quite comfortable with cosy relationships with business leaders, and the Labour Mayor of Liverpool is in deep do-do. Then again, the Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer looks very straight, but that doesn’t seem to be doing him much good. I suspect that most people bend the rules a bit themselves, and don’t mind so much if others do too. Liberal professionals are in a small minority.

What could cause the public to get more angry? Personal enrichment, as happened with the MPs expenses saga in 2009, is more likely to inflame. Alas poor judgement and incompetence seem to get people less excited, as expectations appear to be low. The last time “Tory sleaze” got traction was in the mid-1990s, when the Conservative administration under John Major appeared tired and out of ideas. The expenses scandal, which engulfed all parties, was also at a time of perceived government failure, after the financial crash. The current government has some disasters to its name, but the news for it isn’t all bad. Success on vaccinations, and better judgement in 2021 on lockdown management, may erase memories of the Christmas, and earlier, disasters. Brexit is “done”, as promised, with teething problems not so far in excess of expectations – if you brush over Northern Ireland and the food export industry, which most people can.

What will be toxic for Mr Johnson is if his government starts to take on a general air of incompetence and failure. It clearly has that potential, as we saw in 2020, but it is not a foregone conclusion.

9 thoughts on “What is the significance of “Tory sleaze”?”

  1. I suspect that the emotive impact of Johnson’s alleged comment about ‘letting the bodies pile high’ will do him, and the Conservatives, far more harm than all the stories about cronyism and misuse of funds.

    1. I didn’t talk about that because it isn’t really sleaze. Also its report is a clear breach of confidence. But you are right – it may well be the most damaging episode of the week. And it says something about a toxic working environment at No 10 that a remark like that, which was clearly meant just for those four walls, was leaked and then, apparently, corroborated.

  2. The operation of VIP lists is nothing new. It’s always been difficult to sell anything substantial to big organisations like the NHS or the big defence contractors unless you’re an “approved supplier”.

    Ostensibly this is about quality control. To ensure that everything supplied meets a certain standard. Except it doesn’t. So any supplier will be required to have something like ISO 9001 as a minimum. This simply means that the supplier has to be big enough to tick all the right boxes.. As individuals we know that its often much better to deal with a smaller company. If something goes wrong we can at least get through to a real person on the phone who can fix things quickly.

    Being told by an automated voice that our call is important doesn’t mean much if we are 400th in the queue! So the upshot is that the NHS often pays much more than it needs to and gets worse service too.

    There were numerous stories, last year, of small companies who were offering to make PPE at reasonable prices and sent in samples for evaluation who were simply ignored. It was partly about cronyism but not entirely.

  3. OK, I agree that Johnson has the momentum to ride out the current storm, given that he has got Brexit done and that the virus seems to be being tamed by a highly successful vaccination programme. But what of the Autumn and Winter, when I assume that – contrary to the Johnson promise – some further restrictions on socialising are likely to be needed in order to damp down a (muted) third wave? May not some of this come back to haunt him? – in particular, the episode over the decoration of his no 10 flat looks likely to illustrate his uneasy relationship with the truth. Governments in the Middle East, riddled with clientelism, illustrate how dealing with those you know can easily go too far.

    1. I agree. There seems to a natural law in politics that as soon as you think you are safe, something nasty turns up. He will weather this crisis, but a weakness has been exposed, and there’s going to be more trouble soon enough. There’s a good article in today’s FT by Robert Shrimsley saying the Johnson’s problem is that he lacks a counterweight in his inner cabal no that Cummings has gone.

  4. A second reflection from me, if I may. An issue posed by your blog , Matthew, taken with subsequent events is this: Why is the affair of the Prime Ministers flat redecoration being taken so much more seriously than Jenrick’s tax favour to a property developer , when in substance the latter seems to be so much more serious? I think one reason is that people empathise, within reason, with one person doing a favour to another with whom they are in a commercial – or private – relationship. We all do it all the time, it is part of what is involved in cooperation. But they do not empathise with the Johnsons’ wanting a make-over of their flat by an extra-ordinarily expensive elite designer; this is what the rich do, not them. A second reason is that someone within an inner circle of conservative leaders appears to have broken a law – one relating to disclosure. Jenrick arguably did not; there is no law governing the speed at which the final stages of a planning procedure will be processed.

    1. Interesting thought. I too was surprised that the Jenrick affair did not generate more heat. I don’t think people like the idea of planning decisions being made in this sort of cosy way with developers and ministers being too close. I suspect the issue is more to do with timing. It was easier for the government to bluff things out then. This time people are arguing that it is a pattern. Another difference is that Johnson is being so clearly evasive, which always gets the blood up. The Jenrick affair was blatant more than evasive. A lesson there perhaps. For what it’s worth I don’t think the various investigations will find anything illegal in Johnson’s actions. It seems to strike at the crack between PPERA (political parties regulation) and MPs declaration of interests. Still to most people it looks as if he may be found to have breached something.

  5. «“Tory sleaze” got traction was in the mid-1990s, when the Conservative administration under John Major appeared tired and out of ideas.»

    The John Major government had crashed southern property valuations, and lots of tory voters were angry about that, so unwilling to be forgiving, on sleaze or lack of ideas.

    Conversely how many tory voters are going to be unforgiving to a government gifting them a doubling of property valuations every 7-10 years? They may grumble about this and that, but in the privacy of the voting booth they will be driven for their primary vote moving issue.

    1. Things are looking not bad from that point of view for the Tories. The meanwhile a growing body of younger and middle-aged voters feel shut out out of the bonanza, but they may not have the numbers for a while. A property bust is always possible though.

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