The Great Unravelling?

Clarke's Comment

Following the news this week, one could be forgiven for losing track of the proliferating scandals the Government is becoming mired in. As a recap:

Owen Paterson MP (Cons) - Peddling political influence to commercially benefit Randox and Lynn’s Country Foods, at the expense of their respective competitors.

Geoffrey Cox MP (Cons) - Travelling to and working from tax haven British Virgin Islands (during lockdown and while travel was prohibited). Using parliamentary office and facilities for private commercial business. Not to mention the nature of his work: being paid £900k to defend the BVI against a corruption enquiry being conducted by... wait for it... the UK Foreign Office.

Matt Hancock and other MPs (Cons) - the awarding of lucrative Covid contracts to friends, family and Conservative donors.

Robert Jenrick MP (Cons) - Green-lighting a development scheme against recommendations, thereby saving Tory donor Richard Desmond an estimated £30-50m payment to Tower Hamlets council.

Iain Duncan Smith MP (Cons) - Paid consultant for Byotrol, a non-alcohol sanitiser supplier to the NHS -  chaired a government task force that recommended putting Byotrol's products 'on an even playing field'.

Peerages for cash - 15/16 Conservative treasurers ennobled. Johnson alone has created 96 Lords in 2 years, thereby swelling the number of sitting Lords to an unnecessarily weighty 783.

Boris Johnson MP (Cons) - Brazen attempt to rewrite the corruption rules in order to protect colleagues from scrutiny. Undeclared donations in the forms of free flights, holidays and Downing Street decorations, hiding in Northumbria during the commons debate on corruption. Public money channelled to 'friend' Jennifer Arcuri (also, unrelated but current - falling asleep, maskless, next to Sir David Attenborough, 95, at COP 26 and visiting hospital, maskless, whilst hiding from aforementioned commons debate).

Johnson's tendency to go AWOL when the going gets tough is a habit that has not gone unnoticed. During the London Riots, as Mayor of London, he took off to Toronto. In 2018, he flew all the way to Kabul in order to avoid the vote on a third runway at Heathrow (affecting his constituency of Uxbridge and South Ruislip). He went on hols to the Caribbean during the Iran crisis of 2020, and yurt camping near Aberdeen during the A-level fiasco the same year. And while petrol stations and supermarkets were failing to deliver products earlier this year, Johnson was in the Costa Del Sol. It is perhaps worth mentioning that the common thread here is running away, rather than going on holiday; to illustrate this, we can recall the time he decided to hide in a fridge to avoid questions during the 2019 General Election.

With regards to sleaze, it's quite fascinating to watch these stories unfold. It's almost as if these unsavoury practices have only recently come to light. In fact the outside interests of MPs, both legitimate, illegitimate and grey-area are an open secret, kept in journalists' back pocket to be revealed at opportune moments; moments just like these, where there is blood in the water, and a perceived public appetite for giving the Government a (long overdue) hiding.

The question of second (and third and more) jobs for MPs is an interesting one. Instinctively, many are inclined to think that MPs shouldn't be prevented from pursuing outside interests, but this stems from quite an odd perception of what the job of an MP actually is (not to mention what it ought to be). It appears to hark back to the 18th century, when MPs were largely landowners with vast commercial/agricultural interests for whom representing their constituency was scarcely distinguishable from representing their personal property. For many, being an MP was more of a hobby and a useful networking and social club.

Whilst in 2021, the majority of MPs treat the role as a full-time job, it has never quite shed its reputation as something one can do part-time (particularly for those who represent wealthy areas with comfortable majorities - which is another argument for electoral reform). If we were to create a parliament from scratch and sought to hire the 650 best qualified, best-motivated people for the job, would we allow our representatives to treat the role as a side-gig? Of course not. Of course, the other argument is that we already have a system whereby MPs must declare their outside interests and that it only needs to be applied properly. This would likely eliminate the outrageously sloppy instances of the abuse of power, such as we have seen with Paterson, Hancock, Jenrick, Cox and Johnson (et al) but it would not prevent MPs peddling influence on the quiet. As ever, where the national interest is weighed against the freedom of MPs to make extra cash, we should try to exercise rationality and common sense in the face of the evidence.

The prevailing and received pessimism amongst those opposed to the Government is that Johnson is Teflon and that sleaze will have no more effect on voters than Brexit, Covid, Cummings, incompetence or anything else, but there is another way of seeing this. Whilst common or garden corruption on it's own may not make a decisive difference, when taken in addition to all other failings, it is something that gives permission to Tory swing voters to justify a change. This is what happened in 1997, and it happened in a big way. The difference today, of course, is that, for better or worse, Johnson is no Major, and Starmer is no Blair.

That said, there is a chance that we are witnessing the beginnings of The Great Unravelling. As we have often said, in big political moments everything is considered impossible until it is considered inevitable. For us in Renew, we will stick to our principles of supporting reform, fairness and participation, and when the moment is ripe, we will stand up to be a part of what comes next.

It's time for something new.

If you want to be a part of this new chapter for Renew, look at our refreshed website to learn more and sign up to be a member or donate to help us continue this work!

Have a great week,

James and the Renew Team