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LONDON — Boris Johnson: rule-breaking genius, slacker or plain corrupt?
It’s a debate that has bubbled amid a steady stream of recent scandals that have seen rules broken, jobs and contracts handed to cronies, allies of Johnson protected and allegations of dodgy dealings by the British prime minister himself.
Exasperated officials have quit in protest at their advice being ignored and watchdogs have given the government a string of severe tickings off. Yet nothing seems to seriously damage Johnson’s tearaway regime, with its consistent strong showing in the polls.
But after a week in which No. 10 tried to block sanctions against an MP who broke lobbying rules, Westminster insiders and voters alike have begun to ask if this government has finally pushed its carefree approach to the rules too far.
Downing Street was forced into an embarrassing U-turn after opposition parties refused to cooperate in efforts to spare former Cabinet minister Owen Paterson from a proposed 30-day suspension for an “egregious” breach of parliament’s code on paid lobbying.
Paterson himself resigned as an MP after it became clear how badly ministers had misjudged the mood of the public and parliament, but there was near-universal bafflement at how the government had allowed itself to be dragged into the affair in the first place.
Britain likes to think of itself as whiter than white when it comes to corruption — not a patch on the infamous regimes of Southern Europe or basket case examples in poorer or more autocratic nations around the globe. Just as the U.K. seeks to reassert itself on the world stage after Brexit, the actions of the current government have dented that reputation, leaving observers aghast.
“I genuinely believe that the U.K. is not remotely a corrupt country and I genuinely think that our institutions are not corrupt,” Johnson told reporters Wednesday. “We have a very, very tough system of parliamentary democracy and scrutiny, not least by the media.”
But in a week when Britain has looked more swampy than at any time since the 2009 MPs’ expenses scandal involving widespread misuse of allowances, the fact that he felt compelled to say it raised eyebrows.
Teetering on the edge
Among numerous unedifying episodes, the government has handed public sector jobs to political cronies; awarded COVID contracts to VIPs; allowed an ethics adviser to quit rather than accept his verdict of ministerial bullying; appointed a Conservative donor to the House of Lords against the advice of officials; and unlawfully fast-tracked a building project for a Conservative donor.
Johnson himself has been at the center of several ethics inquiries, including over how a Caribbean island holiday was paid for; how he paid for his Downing Street flat refurb; and whether he misused his position as London mayor to benefit an American businesswoman with whom he had an affair.
Inquiries into his flat renovation and holiday both reached similar conclusions, finding he had not broken any rules but noting he should have paid closer attention to where the money came from.
“If you talk to corruption specialists, some would say, ‘yes, it’s already acting corruptly,’ and some would say it’s not quite,” said Robert Barrington, a professor of anti-corruption practice at the University of Sussex. “My personal view is it’s teetering on the edge.”
He painted a stark picture of the route Britain could go down if the situation continues to degrade — arguing the best comparison nation is the U.S.
“You can imagine what the U.S. would have looked like had [Donald] Trump had a second term, in terms of the social divisiveness; the lack of trust in the electoral system; people having recourse to violence because they don’t believe that the political system represents them or enables them to express their voice,” Barrington said.
“Corruption” can range from the criminal to the not-ideal. Britain rates well — eleventh — on the Transparency International “corruption perceptions index” because its vice is judged to be the latter rather than the former. But too many transgressions could shift the dial when the index is next updated.
“Under the current government, there has been a noticeable shift to how things like the ministerial code is followed,” said Steve Goodrich of Transparency International. “Where rules aren’t followed and there is no consequence, the absence of accountability can breed particularly egregious behavior that could easily slip into out-and-out corrupt practices that you might expect from less-established democracies.”
Professor Mark Knights, an expert on the history of corruption, reckons there are similarities between the “old corruption” of the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries, when government jobs were bought and sold, and what he terms the “new corruption” of the Johnson regime.
“There are signs that we could be slipping back into a Walpolean era where patronage, patrimony and partisanship prevail,” Knights said — namechecking the former Prime Minister Robert Walpole, seen as an architect of the old corruption.
No. 10 Downing Street rejects suggestions the Johnson administration is corrupt. “Since 2010, we have significantly increased transparency on the workings of government — from extensive transparency publications on contracts, spending and meetings, to a statutory register of consultant lobbyists,” a government spokesperson said.
“The government will be going further to review and improve business appointment rules and increase transparency in procurement to ensure we maintain the highest standards in public life.”
Boris will be Boris
Johnson was never expected to run a clean-as-a-whistle administration, and to some extent, rule-breaking is “priced in” to the way people think of him. Those who know him argue he is either too slapdash or believes himself above trifling regulations.
“He’s always had the idea that rules don’t apply to him,” said his biographer Sonia Purnell, who worked with Johnson when he was a journalist in Brussels, writing outlandish stories for the Telegraph. He got the job after being sacked from the Times for fabricating a quote.
The American businesswoman, Jennifer Arcuri, thinks Johnson has become less scrupulous in his adherence to public standards since the pair were an item. She told POLITICO Johnson had fostered “distrust” among the public and “at some point, the world will find out the truth of what happens when one sells one’s soul in a quest for power.”
Others, including those who have not had sexual relations with the prime minister, are more reticent to use the C-word, with discussions ongoing among opposition Labour Party officials over whether to beef up its language. Off the record, one former minister said the Johnson administration was guilty of “rampant low-level corruption.”
But numerous Conservative MPs POLITICO spoke to denied the list of transgressions warranted the term, arguing instead that Johnson was just too careless to be across the detail of things and critics were capitalizing on it.
One said legal campaigners using the courts to highlight procurement issues were fomenting a false perception of wrongdoing. “We are going to have to constrain that,” the person said, adding that previous governments were no less bad.
A former minister said: “Corruption seems to suggest gaining personal advantage but I don’t think that’s what it’s about — I think it’s much more about Boris being too bloody lazy to engage with the hard details.”
And the same person said Johnson’s refusal to deal with detail as he seeks to push through his agenda for the government was in some senses an asset. “This is the essential torture of our situation,” they said. “The tedious prime ministers with their meticulous attention to detail and professionalism are not regarded as our great prime ministers. The great ones are those who are willing to bend and break rules and protocols in order to win.”
How much does sleaze hurt?
Normally Conservative-friendly newspapers have raked over MPs’ financial interests, while Johnson has lost goodwill among his foot soldiers. One Conservative said this “should be a real cause of concern … I can’t recall a moment quite like this since he became leader.”
The usual rule of thumb is that Tory backbenchers will put up and shut up as long as they are not ahead in the polls. The Labour Party has until now struggled to mobilize voter sentiment on the topic. “Sleaze” remains a somewhat amorphous concept, and the party has hesitated to cry “corruption” because it is a legally-sensitive label. That has changed since the Paterson scandal, with one Labour official commenting that their party leader Keir Starmer and his deputy Angela Rayner thought “it was important for them to be on the front foot about it.”
James Johnson, pollster and director of JL Partners, said: “The Paterson affair does seem to have rubbed off on the Tories amongst the public too. There has been a small decline in the polls for the Conservatives, and Boris Johnson’s ratings, in particular, have been hit.”
But he added it may represent only a bump in the road because it is not as personally affecting as, for instance, Johnson’s former adviser Dominic Cummings traveling to Barnard Castle during a pandemic lockdown, and because Labour is not yet seen as “viable” in voters’ eyes.
Nonetheless, one former No. 10 adviser said: “I think this is the worst it’s been and they should be worried — it’s the perfect storm of the old guard with no promotion prospects worried about losing second jobs, and new guard worried that their best years may be spent in the wilderness if this continues.”
Ben Gascoigne, Johnson’s former political secretary, has been brought back as deputy chief of staff alongside Simone Finn, which Conservative insiders regard as a step toward getting a grip on the problems facing Downing Street.
But another former government aide was more sanguine, suggesting No. 10 would not lose too much sleep with a supersized majority and three years before the next election to steady their course.
Even if Johnson can tough it out again, his latest brush with scandal leaves a bad taste in the mouth which threatens to linger.