Those of us who have been around for a while recall with mixed feelings the mid-1990s, when John Major’s administration became increasingly embroiled in allegations of sleaze.
Scarcely a month passed without a Tory MP or minister being caught with a hand in the till, or in a bed that was not the marital one.
Are we back in the realm of Tory sleaze? The BBC and the Left-wing Press hope so, as does the Labour Party. Yesterday, Sir Keir Starmer’s questions at PMQs all touched on Boris Johnson’s alleged sleaze and his exchange of texts with billionaire businessman Sir James Dyson.
If the worst sleaze story you can imagine were rated ten out of ten, I’d say the Johnson-Dyson texts breathlessly reported by the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg scored about three. While mildly embarrassing, they were far from being a damning indictment.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, pictured, is at risk of being mired in a major sleaze scandal
Towards the end of John Major’s premiership, Scarcely a month passed without a Tory MP or minister being caught with a hand in the till, or in a bed that was not the marital one
If the worst sleaze story you can imagine were rated ten out of ten, I’d say the Johnson-Dyson texts breathlessly reported by the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg scored about three. While mildly embarrassing, they were far from being a damning indictment
Sir Keir Starmer, pictured, questioned Mr Johnson yesterday about allegations of Tory sleaze
True, it is irregular for a prime minister to have dealings with a tycoon without a civil servant present. But I hardly think the exchanges merit the description ‘jaw-dropping’ provided yesterday by Shadow Business Secretary Lucy Powell.
Not many jaws, I submit, will be dropping at the Dog And Duck when it reopens. Fair-minded people will say that when the texts were sent in March 2020, we were in the middle of a national emergency, facing a potentially catastrophic shortage of ventilators.
Sir James’s Singapore-based company was apparently capable of producing them, and he wanted reassurance that his employees would not have to pay extra tax if they came to the UK to make the lifesaving equipment. A bit beady of him, perhaps, but hardly venal.
As for Boris, he was seeking no favours for either himself or his party. He simply wanted to lay his hands on as many ventilators as possible. In the event, Dyson machines were not required, though Sir James claims that developing them cost his company £20 million.
Because no official was on hand as these texts whizzed back and forth, Mr Johnson may have broken the ministerial code, though he claims he alerted officials subsequently, in accordance with the rules.
More from Stephen Glover for the Daily Mail…
Even if he did break the code, he did so in the best possible cause. Advice to the PM: next time don’t take short cuts. You are no longer a journalist on the hoof. You’re the Prime Minister.
The fact remains that despite Sir Keir Starmer’s somewhat theatrical anger yesterday (‘sleaze, sleaze, sleaze’), this was definitely not another example of discreditable Tory lobbying.
But it doesn’t follow that the Government has nothing to fear from charges of sleaze. No single allegation amounts to a knockout blow. Together, though, they are starting to make an impression.
That’s how sleaze works. Drip, drip, drip. Story after story, many of them inconsequential. They accumulate like sedimentary rock until — bang! — they define the character of a government in an irreversible way. That is what happened to the Major administration.
There is, of course, one key difference between now and then. Many of the scandals of the 1990s involved sexual shenanigans, though financial jiggery-pokery often went hand in hand with them, as can happen in life.
These days, sex and sleaze are deemed not to go together. Boris can apparently do whatever he wants in his private life. How I laughed when his press secretary, Allegra Stratton, recently lauded his ‘honesty and integrity’ after new allegations arose about his relationship with American businesswoman Jennifer Arcuri.
Ms Arcuri had claimed that she and Boris slept together on a sofa at his marital home minutes before his wife returned, and that he ‘begged her’ for intimate photos. Evidently, Mr Johnson demonstrated honesty and integrity throughout the proceedings!
Allegra Stratton has been transferred to other duties outside No 10 but not, it seems, for uttering one of the most preposterous statements ever to fall from a spin-doctor’s lips.
But if sex and sleaze are now considered separate, money and sleaze remain entwined. The Prime Minister carries quite a lot of baggage, by no means all of it of his own making.
Jennifer Arcuri had claimed that she and Boris slept together on a sofa at his marital home minutes before his wife returned, and that he ‘begged her’ for intimate photos
By far the most serious allegations concern David Cameron, whose tireless lobbying of ministers on behalf of the controversial Lex Greensill and his now insolvent company has been exhaustively documented in recent weeks.
Perhaps the low point in the former prime minister’s disreputable championing of Greensill (from whose company he reportedly stood to make tens of millions of pounds) came when the two men schmoozed the ruthless Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the desert in January 2020.
Boris can’t be blamed for Cameron’s poor judgment and greed but he can be damaged by them, not least through the involvement of senior ministers. Health Secretary Matt Hancock met the ex-PM and Greensill for a ‘private drink’ in 2019 to discuss a new payment scheme for the NHS.
Without doubt, Mr Johnson has done the right thing by appointing an independent and seemingly competent lawyer to look into the murky business. But if the report spares Cameron — or, worse still, exonerates him — the Prime Minister will take the flak.
Boris has his own skeletons concerning non-sexual aspects of his relationship with Jennifer Arcuri. He still faces investigation by the Greater London Authority’s oversight committee as to whether he conducted himself in a way expected of those in public office, though I doubt he is kept awake at night.
Much more recent are revelations, made in the Mail, that £58,000 of Conservative Party funds have been diverted to pay for a lavish makeover of Mr Johnson’s Downing Street flat. This has not yet been declared to the Electoral Commission watchdog.
By far the most serious allegations concern David Cameron, whose tireless lobbying of ministers on behalf of the controversial Lex Greensill and his now insolvent company has been exhaustively documented in recent weeks
Then there are suggestions that the Government has handed out juicy contracts to unqualified chums during the pandemic. A High Court judge ruled that Mr Hancock ‘breached his legal obligation’ by not publishing details of contracts within 30 days of their being signed.
The Health Secretary has a habit of being at the centre of disturbing allegations. The latest one concerns his 15 per cent shareholding in a company approved as a potential supplier for NHS trusts in England. Can this be right?
The Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, pictured, has a habit of being at the centre of disturbing allegations. The latest one concerns his 15 per cent shareholding in a company approved as a potential supplier for NHS trusts in England. Can this be right?
Few, if any, of these disclosures are desperately serious. But they might gradually coalesce and begin to give the impression of a government that isn’t as straight and punctilious as voters would like it to be.
The danger for the PM is that sleaze could eventually become the defining story of this Government. If that happens, as the unfortunate John Major discovered, there is no escape.
Far ahead in the polls, facing a Labour leader who can appear maladroit, and buoyed by a triumphant vaccine rollout, Boris Johnson may feel invulnerable. Carefree and careless by nature, he may be tempted to go on cutting the occasional corner.
He should remember that, although Labour may generally have a weak hand, the charge of sleaze is a potent one. Starmer— whose chief, perhaps only, political virtue is his apparent honesty — will make it again and again. It will become the refrain of the next few years.
Can Boris exude probity? Is he capable of persuading voters that he hates dishonesty and chicanery as much as they do? People may forgive his personal frailties but they won’t forgive a Government tainted by sleaze.