Richard North, 04/08/2021  

The Financial Times is continuing on the trail of Ben Elliot and the "access capitalism" affair, having a former Conservative MP, Charlotte Leslie, accuse Elliot of mixing his business and political interests.

Despite this adorning the paper's front page, the accusation is nothing new. Delving further into the detail is getting a tad boring, without adding much to our understanding. If anything, more information is muddying the waters, taking us away from the central political issue of corruption in high places.

The situation is not improved by the belated intervention of the BBC which, five days after the story broke in the FT, has finally published a version of it on its website.

Predictably, the broadcaster avoids highlighting the central issue and instead goes for the cheap shot with the headline: "Top Tory marketed much-needed Covid tests to rich clients, says Labour". This is simply a repeat of the already published claim that Ben Elliot's firm arranged for its wealthy clients to buy PCR and antibody tests, at a time when the NHS and care homes "were crying out" for more tests.

Only at the very end of its report does it mention, almost in passing, that Elliot had developed "an exclusive club to connect Tory supporters with senior figures", citing the FT story in which Amersi claims that this was a "very elite" membership with people required to "cough up £250,000 per annum or be a friend of Ben".

There is no mention of the term "access capitalism" and no reference to the Advisory Board, or that fact that this "invite-only" club assured monthly meetings with prime minister Johnson and chancellor Rishi Sunak. In fact, there is no mention of either Johnson or Sunak. The BBC is offering a sanitised version of the story, devoid of political bite.

This reluctance to confront the dark shadow of corruption in high places rather confirms O'Neil's thesis in yesterday's Times about the tendency to avoid the C-word. Instead of saying in plain English that these are allegations of corruption, he writes, we resort to clever-clever phrases and knowing descriptions best uttered while nodding and winking.

O'Neil also notes that we're not quite so shy when talking about what goes on in other countries. Dominic Raab, he writes, recently imposed asset freezes and travel bans on public figures from Venezuela, Zimbabwe, Equatorial Guinea and Iraq and pledged to fight "the blight of corruption and hold those responsible for its corrosive effect to account".

There is certainly the sense that corruption is something that only occurs in foreign countries, as evidenced by Raab's press release from late July. And there was more of the same from Deirdre Brown, Deputy Head of the UK Delegation to the OSCE, who condemned corruption as "the scourge of all, and a serious inhibiter to economic growth". Never fear, though. according to Brown, it "impacts most heavily on the poorest nations".

But while the shrinking violets might steer clear of the domestic application of the C-word, not everyone does, and its use (and the circumstances of its use) does not escape attention, even on distant shores. Take for instance, the British Virgin Islands in the distant Caribbean, which has had a torrid time of late, edging up to a full-blown constitutional crisis exacerbated by the scourge of Covid-19, mired by allegations of corruption from the outgoing governor.

Enter Natalio D Wheatley, BVI minister for education, culture, youth affairs, fisheries and agriculture, speaking on 1 August. "Among some persons", he says, "disillusioned because of what they may perceive to be this society's weaknesses, an ill-advised sentiment has crept into conversations: 'Let Britain take over for a while'".

But he had already set the scene for the rejection of this idea by asserting that the UK is not immune to the alleged deficiencies being scrutinised in the BVI. He then refers to the Guardian, a "reputable publication" which had published an article entitled, "Under Boris Johnson, corruption is taking hold in Britain", with the subtitle: "Cronyism is rife, our system of checks and balances is being dismantled, and ordinary people will soon start to suffer". Johnson's fame has spread far and wide, and the erosion of standards under his administration has not escaped notice – except, it would seem, where it matters.

One reason why the use of the C-word in this article did not gain greater traction in the UK might very well be because it was in that "reputable publication", the Guardian, but an even more certain reason was undoubtedly the author of the piece, Gina Miller – she of Article 50 Supreme Court fame.

Whether it is she, Guardian doyen Jonathan Freedland, writing of the scandals "that should have felled Johnson years ago", or ex-Times foreign editor, Martin Fletcher, complaining in the New Statesman that "Corruption in Britain has reached new heights under Boris Johnson’s government", all these references have one thing in common – they are all from left-of-centre writers.

Thus, "corruption" has become a stick used by the partisan left with which to beat Johnson, triggering a defensive response from the tribal "right" that does not permit the charge to be examined. Party politics has poisoned the well of accountability.

Perversely, this puts in context my complaint yesterday that the legacy media was not joining the dots and was instead inviting us to see events as sporadic occurrences without picking out common themes or evidence of systemic failures.

No sooner had I published this then we had Yasmin Alibhai-Brown writing in iNews, under the headline: "From paying for peerages to the Queen's lobbying, these six scandals lay bare the corruption of our country". And, along the same lines as O'Neil, her sub-heading declares: "Around the world, the wretched protest tirelessly against corrupt governments. Here the corruption is cleverly alibied and now normalised".

The point is made, but to no avail. A left-wing writer in a left-leaning paper is going to make no more impact than any other commentary from the same political spectrum.

Alibhai-Brown states that old systems based on myths of British incorruptibility are ineffectual and argues that we should tighten the rules, create a robust body to regulate lobbyists and set up an independent committee to eject those who have bought peerages and to appoint people using fair methods.

"Let us clean up British politics – and make Britain truly great again", she concludes, while O'Neil declares that: "Reform of our opaque systems of honours, appointments and political donations is urgently needed before a worsening integrity problem becomes a full-blown corruption crisis".

Even The Times, though, will have little impact. Tribal politics are blocking the debate. There will have to be a full-blown crisis before this government even admits there is a problem. Meanwhile, "access capitalism" is likely to fade back into the obscurity from whence it came.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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