Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Monday, 8 November 2021

The malversation of this government is not a surprise. The U turn tells us more.


Malversation is corrupt behaviour in a position of trust, especially in public office. That this government is corrupt in that sense should not be a surprise. In September 2019 I talked about the government then led by Johnson as rogue, and the most dangerous government we have seen in our lifetimes. This didn’t take any special insight. The man had just shut down parliament for his own convenience (and lied to the queen to do so), and this action was in turn unsurprising given his past deeds. Others need to explain why they missed all that, or thought Johnson would change, or indeed why they saw Corbyn as a greater danger than both Johnson and Brexit.

So Johnson’s attempt to use sympathy for Patterson in some Tory circles to get rid of a potential embarrassment to him is unsurprising. His standard reaction to any institution that holds him or his government accountable is to abolish that threat. What tells us more is his dramatic U turn a day later. I think it is worth asking why he did the U turn to analyse the limits to Johnson’s power. It tells us why, even in its timid state, the BBC is worth preserving, why corruption could be this government’s Achilles Heel, and why the lack of opposition cooperation will nevertheless save Johnson.

Johnson’s attempt to remove the commissioner and committee for standards is hardly the first act of malversation committed by Johnson. Priti Patel breached the Ministerial Code, but Johnson overruled the Independent Advisor on Ministerial Standards, who then had no choice but to resign. When an independent panel failed to choose former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre for the chair of Ofcom, Johnson simply appointed another panel. There are many more examples, like the pay off from public money to the senior civil servant who resigned after Patel bullied his staff, the COVID contracts, Jennifer Arcuri and many more.

In each of these cases Johnson got his way, and got away with it. No doubt this encouraged him to think he could get away with saving Paterson, ousting the standards commissioner and remodelling the committee so it would have a Tory majority. So why was this case different from the others? Why did Johnson feel he had to backtrack in such a visible way?

It is tempting to say this issue broke through with voters because Brexit is long done (sort of) and Brexit voters and newspapers are beginning to view the government more critically. That is certainly possible, but I think there are other factors that help explain why Johnson felt he had to U turn. After all, some items in the corruption list have happened or emerged since the Brexit deal was agreed, and in addition Brexit is hardly over with the UK threatening to renege on that deal.

For a more structural answer I think we have to start with the BBC. In the News at 10 that I watched, the narrow vote in parliament was the lead item. Although the headline was ‘MPs vote’ to overturn Paterson’s suspension, it was quickly obvious from the subsequent narrative that it was Tory MPs and that there was a three line whip imposed by Johnson. What made it more newsworthy than previous examples of corruption? I suspect it was because you had the drama of a vote in parliament, with many Tory MPs rebelling combined with a simple story to tell. In addition Johnson was unlucky there was not a more important news item that day.

Why was this so important? Because many people watch the BBC’s main news programmes, including those that also read the Tory press. That had two outcomes. First, MPs would have heard directly from supporters (and others) who were unhappy with this episode. Secondly, editors of the right wing press would know that many of their readers would be angered by the story and expect their newspaper to reflect that.

This had no effect on the Express and Telegraph: the latter chose to go with Patterson’s own account of his ‘2 years of hell’ story. The Sun didn’t put it on the front page, but their editorial did describe it as a mistake by Johnson. The Mail put it on the front page. They too had a headline that talked about MPs rather than Tory MPs (‘MPs sink back into sleaze’), but for those that read further the facts became clear quickly.

Johnson fears two things: his own MPs or the electorate turning against him. The two are closely related. Johnson became Conservative party leader not because most MPs like or admire him but because so many voters like him, so he helps win elections. If that popularity goes, so does he. So the combination of many Tory MPs being angry anyway and reporting widespread public disquiet, and the Mail coming out against his position, was enough to generate a very embarrassing U turn.

What are the lessons of this episode for those who oppose this government? The first is that the BBC, even in its current timid state, is still important. It is why the government continues to attack it. The second is that this government’s corruption may well be its Achilles Heel. It will not be nearly enough on its own to lead to Johnson’s defeat, but it will be an important weapon.

But if that is good news for those, like me, who want to see this government fall at the next general election, the bad news is Labour’s continuing resistance to any kind of cooperation with other opposition parties. After a brief discussion, the opposition parties decided not to cooperate in the forthcoming byelection for Paterson’s old seat. I think the idea of putting forward a non-party political anti-corruption candidate was not a viable plan, but doing nothing will mean the anti-climax of an easy Conservative win. Worse still, in true blue seats Conservative voters that want to protest about government corruption are likely to vote LibDem. It is possible that Labour could be embarrassed by coming third in a seat where they were second last time, and that rather than corruption will be the headline.

As I argued here, it is virtually impossible for Labour to win enough seats to form a government at the next election. Not only is the opposition split between three parties in England, but Labour’s socially liberal core electorate are also concentrated in cities, both of which work against Labour under FPTP. As a result, Labour has to try not to antagonise socially conservative voters, but that gets it into trouble with social liberals who may defect to the Greens or Liberal Democrats. If everyone voted tactically to get the Tories out this wouldn’t be a problem, but in reality too many voters think voting expresses their identity, even under FPTP.

There are various forms that cooperation among opposition parties could take, but these all require a will to do something from the Labour leadership. So far the Labour leadership shows no such will. There are some, on the left and right of Labour, who see Starmer as simply a placeholder until one of their own can take over after the next election. But accepting that a government whose inactions have left around 100,000 to die from COVID, who seem intent on plundering the NHS and other parts of the state, and whose corruption steadily weakens UK democracy, should have another five years in office seems far too high a price to pay.

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