Sleaze, corruption, and cronyism. These are the words now firmly associated with the Tories and their friends. There is barely a day that goes by without some new details revealing the grubby connections between big business and the government.
First we had the PPE procurement scandal, where almost £8bn of public money was fast-tracked into the hands of friends of senior Tories.
Then the Greensill saga helped bring to light the revolving door between the government and big business.
Now the question of who paid for the lavish refurbishment of Boris Johnson’s Downing Street flat has once again put the issue of ‘cash for access’ into the spotlight.
Splits and cracks
It is no coincidence that these issues are beginning to surface now. The pandemic has served to brutally expose the real workings of the capitalist system, with billions suffering whilst the billionaires get richer.
Just as COVID has cruelly exposed the gulf that exists between the rich and poor, so too has it brought to light the cozy relationship that exists between government and big business.
In the past, these relationships would typically remain hidden from view. Or at least they would be presented under the seemingly innocent labels of ‘lobbying’ and ‘donations’, with no further questions asked.
But with capitalism in deep crisis, it was inevitable that splits would emerge within the ruling class.
This has been evident within the Tory Party over the question of lockdowns: whether to follow the advice of the scientists, or to prioritise the bosses’ profits and ‘let the bodies pile high’.
Of course, at the end of the day, the Tories only brought in lockdowns when it was clear that continued inaction was untenable for their electoral fortunes.
It is within this context – of conflicts between sections or even individuals of the ruling class – that all sorts of scandals can emerge through the cracks.
In the struggle between different camps in the ruling class, it is not uncommon for each other’s dirty laundry to be aired in public. But in their rush to discredit their opponents, they can end up discrediting their whole system in the process.
This dynamic is clear to see in the squabble between Boris Johnson and his former advisor, Dominic Cummings. With Johnson accusing Cummings of being the so-called ‘chatty rat’ – leaking plans for the second lockdown to the press – Cummings hit back at the Prime Minister with an explosive blog post.
‘Cash for curtains’
Amongst other things, Cummings revealed how Johnson allegedly planned to “have donors secretly pay for the renovation” of his Downing Street flat; a renovation that is estimated by some to have cost as much as £200,000!
Boris Johnson has refused to answer questions about the so-called ‘cash for curtains’ scandal, and maintains that all of this is simply a “farrago of nonsense”.
But a leaked email has since revealed how a major Tory donor, Lord Brownlow, sent a £58,000 cheque to Tory HQ last year, earmarked for meeting some of the lavish refurbishment costs.
As an aside, many ordinary people will be wondering how on earth it is possible to rack up a £200,000 bill to renovate a four-bedroom flat; a flat that had been refurbished to the highest specifications only a few years earlier.
One might think that even to spend the annual grant of £30,000 for Downing Street renovations would be enough to satisfy even the most expensive of tastes. But apparently not. According to columnist Sarah Vine, wife of senior Tory minister Michael Gove, Johnson and his family could hardly be expected to “live in a skip”.
Friends of Carrie Symonds – Johnson’s fiancée – had a slightly different take on the flat’s prior condition, describing it as a “John Lewis nightmare”.
Hence the hiring of Lulu Lytle – top designer to royalty and celebrities alike – to bring the flat up to scratch. The starting price for Lytle’s wallpaper fabrics is a cool £100 per metre. Presumably the “gold wall coverings” ordered by Symonds cost somewhat more.
But with friends like Lord Brownlow prepared to foot the bill, why spare any expense?
All this just goes to show the absolute gulf that exists between the living standards of the establishment, and millions of ordinary working-class people struggling to make ends meet.
Friends in high places
Blairite Labour MP Margaret Hodge has since reported Johnson to the MPs’ standards watchdog, to get to the bottom of who paid what, and when. A number of other enquiries, including by the Electoral Commission, are also investigating Johnson over the matter.
The real question to be asked, however, is not whether the ‘donation’ was properly recorded in the MPs’ register of interests – but why a multimillionaire like Lord Brownlow would be so interested in paying Johnson’s bills in the first place. After all, Johnson, who described his former £250,000 a year salary as “chicken feed”, is hardly short of cash.
Lord Brownlow – a former Tory Party vice-chairman – is one of Britain’s richest capitalists, with an estimated fortune of £247 million. Brownlow’s £58,000 contribution to Johnson’s refurbishment bill is small change compared to the almost £3 million he has donated to the party over a number of years.
Brownlow has form for opening his wallet to the Tories’ most rich and powerful. In 2018, Brownlow invested £2.6 million into Cefinn, the then-struggling fashion label founded by Samantha Cameron (wife of former PM David Cameron), which was losing over £500,000 a year.
Brownlow said of his investment at the time, that “I am joining the company in part because I like the management team”. Indeed!
Brownlow’s ‘donations’ and ‘investments’ are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to funding the Tory Party and their friends.
Look no further, for example, than the Tories’ infamous ‘Leader’s Group’. For the princely sum of £50,000 per year, members are invited to a programme of dinners, lunches, and drinks receptions with the PM and senior cabinet ministers.
We can be forgiven for assuming that it is more than just the latest high-society gossip that is discussed at such events. Presumably, those donating such incredible sums expect something more than just fine dining in return.
Strangely enough, many ‘Leader’s Group’ members just so happened to land multi-million pound government contracts to supply PPE during the initial wave of the pandemic last year.
For example, as reported by @BylineTimes on Twitter, eight Tory donors – who collectively donated £8.2 million to the party – won a total of £881 million in COVID government contracts. Half of these donors were members of the Leader’s Group.
And this sordid list goes on, with almost £8 billion worth of COVID contracts going to individuals and businesses connected with the Tories.
Capitalism is corruption
Of course, none of this is anything new. That members of the ruling class should use their political connections to further their own interests is a phenomenon as old as class society itself.
We are led to believe that corruption and cronyism has no place at all in a capitalist ‘democracy’ such as Britain. Such things are supposed to be the preserve of authoritarian regimes in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. ‘Democratic’ governments in Europe and North America, we are told, ‘play by the rules’.
The point, however, is that these ‘rules’ are set up in such a way as to legalise corruption and bribery. The revolving door; corporate lobbying of politicians; connections between donors and Downing Street; networks and private clubs for the elites: all of these just formalise the murky practices that take place between the wealthy and the state in any capitalist country.
What is significant is that this ‘democratic’ and ‘respectable’ veneer of the establishment is more and more losing its gloss. Beneath the facade of ‘registers of interest’, ‘ministerial codes’, and ‘standards committees’, lies the same old web of patronage and corruption found everywhere else.
It is not enough for the Labour leadership to complain about this or that breach of the ministerial code; or to call for simply more enquiries into the sleazy deals of the Tories. The Labour movement should state clearly: capitalism and corruption are inseparable.
Capitalism is a system built on exploitation. It is the working class that produces all the wealth in society. But it is the capitalist class who appropriate this, through any and every tool at their disposal: both legal and illicit.
The logic of the market is do or die. Individual capitalists must outcompete their rivals, or go under. It is therefore inevitable that these gangsters will use whatever means – corrupt or otherwise – to further enrich themselves.
The only way to end this whole rotten setup is to end capitalism itself. And that means fighting to take the economy out of the hands of the bosses, and putting it under the ownership and control of the organised working class.
Only under a socialist plan of production – with an economy based on needs, not profits – can we put a stop to the greed, corruption, and sleaze that is endemic to capitalism.