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Britain believes it’s free of corruption. But there’s still the stench of decay

Posted on Apr 14, 2021

I f you are pulled over for a traffic offence in Britain, the fine is not usually settled with a wink and a roll of banknotes for the police officer. In court, judges do not rule in favour of the highest bidder. I have spent enough time in countries where cash bribery lubricates every cog of the state to believe that the UK is not, by global standards, corrupt.

Transparency International’s 2020 index of perceived corruption ranked Britain 11th in the world. For European context, that puts us eight places behind Finland, 12 above France and 118 clear of Russia, where the barrier between politics and theft has collapsed and the most prominent campaigner on the issue, Alexei Navalny, was jailed earlier this year.

British prime ministers do not build palaces with plundered national resources, for which restraint we can be grateful. But pride at having relatively clean politics invites complacency about behaviour that offends a spirit of public duty without breaking any laws. So it is with David Cameron contacting ministers on behalf of Lex Greensill, a financier whose business went bust last year. Greensill previously had an ill-defined advisory role in Cameron’s government. His company seems to have enjoyed extraordinary licence to straddle the boundary between public and private sectors. One senior Whitehall official from the Cameron era was hired to advise the Greensill board while still formally employed as a civil servant.

The former prime minister has broken no rules, although he acknowledges that, “to avoid misunderstanding”, contact with the current cabinet should have been conducted “through only the most formal of channels”. But access to the least formal channels is presumably a reason why Greensill had him on the books. Cameron also pleads extenuating circumstances in a national emergency. He was promoting financial bridges in a pandemic, when small businesses were falling into credit gaps.

Wartime expediency has also been the government’s defence against allegations of cronyism when awarding public contracts in the battle against coronavirus. Corners were cut and friends of the Tory party might have benefited, but apparently there was no time for proper procedures. The virus moved too fast.

That cover story can’t apply to non-Covid cosiness. There was no pandemic in November 2019, for instance, when newspaper tycoon Richard Desmond attended a Tory fundraising dinner and buttonholed Robert Jenrick, the housing minister, over a property scheme for which he needed, and was later granted, planning permission. The decision was overturned in court. Jenrick said the two men had been seated together “inadvertently”.

It is hard to measure the impact of any single story on public opinion. There has been a steady corrosion over many years of the idea that politicians serve their electors foremost. Ordinary folk are in the queue for attention, but the rich get backstage passes.

These things are partly cyclical. After a long incumbency, sleaze stories collect like bags under the eyes of a haggard government. Ministers get arrogant from the habit of power, and wield it lazily.

Boris Johnson is not a man to lose sleep over lapses in probity. But he remembers the putrescence of the John Major years and its deep contamination of the Tory brand. He should fear any return of the whiff. Downing Street has ordered a review into Greensill Capital’s involvement in government, including Cameron’s lobbying. It will be conducted by Nigel Boardman, a corporate lawyer and non-executive director at the Department for Business.

The immediate purpose of such an inquiry is deflection of awkward questions. Ministers can withhold comment pending the investigator’s report. A bonus function is that the present prime minister gets to hang a steaming cauldron of ignominy over the head of an old rival. The competition between them, dating back to Eton school days, is without ideological content but thick with national consequence, since it put them on opposing sides of the Brexit debate.

There is something pitiful about the slide in Cameron’s status from running the government to sending it needy text messages. But the spectacle of what he has become distracts attention from what he always was. This is a man born into the trade of establishment favours. He is a distant cousin of the Queen. His first job interview at Conservative headquarters was supported by a caller from Buckingham Palace who has never been identified but is reported to have flagged up the aspiring researcher as “a truly remarkable young man”.

Maybe Cameron deserved that accolade. It takes skill to maximise opportunities that come past on a journey up the elite escalator. “I think I’d be rather good at it,” he said once, when asked why he wanted to be prime minister. Events should have disabused him of that notion. But he is no better equipped for realistic self-appraisal than Johnson, in whom no one suspects altruistic motive for seeking high office. For both men, the glamour of power is only temporary compensation for the privations of a ministerial salary – a fraction of what their privileges might parlay out of the private sector.

Cameron acknowledges that a line was crossed with Greensill, but only because a ray of media attention illuminated that line’s existence. There would be no qualm if the whole business had been kept in its proper place, behind heavy oak-panelled doors.

It was all meant to stay in the enchanted realm of informal power, beyond Westminster station’s platform nine and three-quarters, accessed via the serene sense of entitlement to be there. It is a place with its own codes of patronage and mutual assistance that are so woven into the political fabric that we treat them as decor, not decay. One example: prime ministers reward friends, advisers and financial benefactors with peerages because it is the custom. Other countries use a different word when seats in parliament’s upper chamber are handed out as prizes for loyalty to the leader.

What we glimpse in Cameron’s political afterlife is that shaded zone in British public affairs where chains of accountability dissolve; where a liquid fusion of money and social pedigree flows unimpeded between state institutions, parliament and the Tory party.

British politics is not riddled with corruption. But it is decadent in many ways, rotten in places, and has been this way for so long that we hardly react to the smell.

  • Rafael Behr is a Guardian columnist