Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Friday 25 February 2022

Why the price of Johnson staying in power is measured in yet more human lives


Next weeks blog is early because of topicality and grandchildren. It is probably a failed attempt at transforming raw anger into meaningful prose.

Both the Financial Times and Times have good accounts of what the former calls Boris Johnson’s money network, following earlier analysis in Open Democracy. (See Peter Geoghegan’s book Democracy for Sale in particular.) I have talked before about the ‘Leaders Group’, a longstanding club for Tory donors who enjoy monthly lunches with ministers, but there is also an even more select ‘Advisory Board’. This, according to the Times, “granted privileged access to the prime minister, ministers and advisers at the top of government.”

Before linking this to policy over Covid, it is important that we are clear about what is going on here. The official line is that this is just a group of people with money helping the Conservative cause. But as all the accounts above make perfectly clear, that is the half-truth that allows the myth of that official line to persist. What those who donate large sums are doing here is not just supporting the Conservative cause, but also buying direct access (and therefore inevitably influence) with whichever minister they choose.

Equally others might ask what is new here. The CEOs who run our large companies have always had the ability to contact ministers when they needed to. I have in the past talked about institutionalised links between finance and the Treasury, which gives banks in particular direct access to key areas of government decision making. But that is access based on power, not money. Who does and doesn’t have power matters hugely of course, but it is not what is going on with Johnson’s money networks.

What is giving those who are part of that network unrivalled access to ministers and the Prime Minister is money, pure and simple. Those with money may also be powerful, but their access through the leaders group and the Advisory board is based on financial donations to the Conservative party. Once again, that individuals have been able in the past to use party donations to buy influence is not new. What is new is its institutionalisation, which has happened gradually over the last decade and is now under Boris Johnson, it seems, complete.

It is no surprise that Johnson has given priority to completing his money network. He himself is not that wealthy compared to some other Conservative ministers and is also hopeless with money: he needs a lot of it and hates raising it. But he also knows the Conservative party today needs to spend so much more than its rivals because its message is so often dishonest (see here for a clear example). This is what gives donors all the leverage they need with Conservative ministers.

This is partly why I have over the past few years described the UK under the Conservatives, and the US under Trump, as an elected plutocracy - government by the wealthy, for the wealthy. Once access and influence within a governing political party becomes institutionalised to the extent that it now is in the Conservative party, then it becomes legitimate to talk about an institutionalised plutocracy. That does not mean that those with money always have the final say - normal politics still functions to a degree - but critically it becomes almost impossible for us to say how big an influence those within the money network do have on government decisions. In normal democracies we would describe a plutocracy by another, equally valid, name: corruption.

Nor is this corruption confined to the party leader and his ministers. Many Conservative MPs are now in the market for becoming paid lobbyists for particular firms wanting favours from the government, as Open Democracy reports. Paterson was not one bad apple, but part of an increasing pattern in this Conservative party.

Covid policy has become, very unfortunately, a good example of this plutocracy in action. The Times report goes on: “According to a source, board members — whose investments spanned property, construction and big tobacco — were alarmed by the effect of Covid-19 on their businesses. A number of those present requested swift action, including the relaxation of measures designed to stop transmission.” How much influence does that have? We just do not know, but to pretend it has no influence on what the Prime Minister decides is no longer a tenable position.

More well known has been the constant pressure from the billionaires who own the right wing press, both directly and through their papers, to relax any protections from catching Covid, and to ‘get back to normal’. Of course this influence is plutocracy institutionalised as well, just a more familiar one mediated through money buying newspapers. But we also have perhaps a majority of his mask phobic MPs who are constantly pushing in the same direction. As MPs should take account of what the electorate thinks, the UK remains in theory an elected plutocracy, rather than just a pure plutocracy, but on Covid the majority of mask-phobic MPs in the Conservative party are certainly not representing their electorate. 

When Boris Johnson’s position as leader of his party was under serious threat as a result of him lying to parliament over partygate, he announced plans to end all of what he calls ‘restrictions on freedom’ associated with Covid, and which I would call protections against catching Covid. That included removing the legal requirement to self-isolate and free testing. The timing was no coincidence, but a survival tactic. He needed to get the large number of his mask-phobic MPs on his side, but he also needed to keep the support of the press and the party’s donors (the leaders group and advisor board). So, putting scientific advice in the bin, he did what they wanted.

This is perhaps the most blatant example of UK elected plutocracy in action since Brexit, and it is also likely to have the biggest effect on some people’s lives since Brexit. But it is far from the only example. As Russia started it invasion of Ukraine Boris Johnson, having talked big beforehand about what he would do, produced a set of sanctions that can only be described as pathetic, The Conservative party’s own considerable funding by Russian oligarchs remains untouched. Russian money has, despite what Johnson says, successfully destablised Western countries through support for Trump and the Leave campaign, and as the Russia report made clear Johnson's government pleads ignorance because it hasn't looked. It shouldn't just be people around Biden who are worrying about the extent to which Johnson is compromised by his and his party's Russian links.   

Countless health professionals have condemned the ending of Covid protections including mandatory self-isolation as rash and premature. Of course the media will find some health experts who agree with the government, but it’s the overall plurality of scientific opinion that matters here, just as it was with economists and Brexit. As with Brexit, it is clear where that plurality lies, and so the media has no excuse ignoring what health professionals are saying.

This government, whose Covid policy always had a very loose connection with science, has now severed the connection with scientific and medical advice completely. It and its supporters have chosen to bask in the (temporary?) glory of declaring victory over the virus instead, a glory that - when it comes to self-isolation at least - most people would rather not have. This is Covid policy for the unrepresentative donors, newspaper owners and MPs who have a phobia about masks, rather than those who elect our government.

Of course the virus will not be impressed by whatever victory Johnson declares, but it will relish the new contacts that his decisions allow. Infection levels remain at around the same high rate they were before Omicron hit, after the last time (we should not forget) Johnson declared victory over the virus on ‘freedom day’ last summer. Covid levels remain high in many schools. Nearly one thousand people died last week from Covid. If we are lucky, and no new variants start pushing UK cases up, we should have seen a steady decline under previous arrangements as we head into Spring. That might be the time to start relaxing some measures. Johnson is doing it now because it helps keep him remain Prime Minister: more people will die unnecessarily as a result, and more people will get Long Covid as a result.

However we may not be lucky with new variants. One may arise with the same infectiousness of Omicron (and, crucially, the ability to reinfect those who have had earlier variants). We already have BA.2. It is also quite possible that a future variant will involve greater vaccine escape, and it is also possible (despite widespread belief) that a future variant could be more life threatening than Omicron. Learning to live with Covid means investing in measures that reduce its impact, not pretending the disease doesn't exist. 

The government’s approach seems to be to ignore this threat, and by testing less hope that only those that catch a new variant will notice it. Whatever he may say, the message those pushing him to ignore Covid are putting out is that the pandemic is over, and people don’t need to wear masks in crowded spaces, don’t need to protect vulnerable people by paying for tests and wearing masks, and don’t even need to self isolate if they catch Covid. By pandering to this line, Johnson will be responsible for its consequences.

All Johnson’s talk of personal responsibility is designed to hide an uncomfortable truth: he is making it harder for most people to behave responsibly, and he is allowing others to be irresponsible. We ban smoking in certain public spaces rather than give smokers ‘individual responsibility’ not to smoke there, when it is obvious who is smoking, so why should individuals be personally responsible over who they do or do not give Covid to, when others cannot tell who has Covid?! He has made England a less safe place, and many will die as a result. He is ignoring scientific advice to be more cautious because his position is under threat, and so he is giving in to the ego-libertarian factions that now control the Conservative party: the right wing press, mask-phobic MPs and the donors to the party that make up the UK’s elected plutocracy.

This week, when compulsory self-isolation ends, has been a sad day for most people in England who would rather not catch Covid, but will now find that much harder to avoid doing so. It is a sad day for the influence of medical science, which has gone the same way as economics as a guide to what our government does. It is also a sad day for our democracy, when the survival of one man means that party donors, newspaper editors and anti-science MPs have become more important than the electorate.

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