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The Guardian view on Boris Johnson’s donors: what is the quid pro quo?

Posted on Apr 27, 2021

C orruption is defined as the abuse of entrusted power for private gain. This term cannot – yet – be applied to describe what has gone on with the refurbishment of the four-bedroom Downing Street flat by Boris Johnson. The facts have yet to be shown. But on Monday, Simon Case, the cabinet secretary, did not deny claims that private donors helped to pay to renovate the prime minister’s home. The generous public grant of £30,000 available to spend on the flat was, apparently, not enough. This seems to contradict the government’s assertion that Mr Johnson had funded the refurbishment all along.

The issue of who paid to transform Mr Johnson’s Downing Street home – from “John Lewis furniture nightmare” into a “high society haven” – is not Westminster tittle-tattle. There has been no transparency about said donation. Mr Johnson hides behind such obfuscations. We still do not know who paid for the Caribbean holiday that he took after winning the 2019 general election. It is doubtful that Mr Johnson would not feel indebted to wealthy benefactors. Which is why the latest row risks becoming a defining issue for the government. It opens Mr Johnson up to accusations that his government is for sale.

Bribes, sops and favours have not been methods of rule in Britain for a very long time. It has been thought best to avoid the appearance of venality. Our system of government relies on holders of high office not conducting themselves in a way that reduces public confidence. Mr Johnson has made a career from holding such conventions in contempt. He sees no reason to regulate himself in the interests of anybody but himself. Ministerial codes, parliamentary rules and reporting requirements are for everyone else; they do not apply to him. His gargantuan self-confidence has led the prime minister to react to embarrassments by doubling down.

This will have profound consequences for politics. Mr Johnson’s practised insouciance in the face of outrage looks designed to create a tolerance for sleaze in Westminster. The prime minister gave a peerage to a Tory donor against advice from the House of Lords appointments commission. The American businesswomen Jennifer Arcuri claimed to have had a four-year affair with Mr Johnson when he ran the capital, a period in which her companies received £126,000 of public money. Mr Johnson says he acted with “honesty and integrity”.

The evidence accumulates but, philosophically, the problem is what to do about it. Britain’s constitutional setup relies on self-regulation, which is collapsing under Mr Johnson. Civil servants have been cowed. Whether the prime minister did or did not say that he would rather bodies “pile high in their thousands” than order a third lockdown is about his personal, more than his political, morality. The alleged language would be both disgraceful and distasteful. But it is the prime minister’s actions that appear to be fostering an environment conducive to graft.

The Conservative party has been in power for more than a decade. During that time the party’s leaders have placed the commanding heights of economic policy in the hands of its supporters, often in finance and property, who have then gone on to employ Tory politicians. David Cameron went to work for the disgraced banker Lex Greensill, having brought him into government. That he stood, it is reported, to gain £200m if Mr Greensill’s firm had floated on the stock market is testament to his poor judgment.

Covid-19 has revealed the depth of cronyism and clientelism in British public life. This country had a reputation for the integrity of its public institutions. Mr Johnson’s legacy may be to shrink, irrevocably, our stature.