WHEN ministers get into a verbal tangle, as did Oliver Dowden Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, on BBC’s Radio Four Today programme, it is because the gap between reality and the manipulated mirage that is government news management can no longer be sustained.
The issue at stake are the intimate communications between Sir James Dyson and the Prime Minister over the possible provision of ventilators to deal with the added demand that the early stages of the Covid-19 outbreak entailed.
The BBC said it had seen texts in which the Prime Minister offered to fix tax rules on behalf of Dyson’s overseas employers who might need to work in Britain on the project.
And when Dyson further lobbied Johnson, the PM gushed enthusiastically over the scheme and then, ever wily, texted “(Chancellor) Rishi (Sunak) says it’s all fixed.”
Whitehall rules — a notoriously flexible corpus of constraints on ministerial dealings — are that an official, that is a civil servant, should be present when ministers conduct business with such people outside of public service. If this rule lays in pieces after this episode it is not only the PM in the frame but also his potential rival for leader of the Tory Party.
You might think that Johnson must wish for a Whitehall equivalent of the ingenious Dyson vacuum cleaner which might whisk into guaranteed obscurity any evidence that the links between big business and Tory government cross over the boundary that nominally separates out venal profit seeking and government.
But he prefers to brazen it out and predictably he went on the offensive to claim that he was acting in the national interest, in a national emergency etc, etc. Meanwhile Dowden doubled down on this evasive action to argue that the normal rules existed “but we had to move at pace.”
Following on from earlier revelations that former Tory prime minister David Cameron went into overdrive lobbying for the dodgy finance firm Greenshill Capital Labour now senses blood in the water.
There is a good basis in Labour’s 2019 pledge to repeal the Lobbying Act of 2014 and overhaul the rules that govern corporate lobbying, set up a lobbying register covering in-house lobbyists and think tanks, set spending limits and make it a legal necessity for all organisations that spend more that £20,000 in England or £10,000 in Wales on regulated campaigning in the year prior to an election to register with the Electoral Commission.
This is a welcome turn and if taken to its logical conclusion will help reconstruct Labour’s appeal to that vast class of people who hold that private interests and public money make corrupt bedfellows.
The disreputable sidekick of corruption in public office is the revolving door which conjoins these two worlds. One in five of Tory MPs elected in 2019 have worked as lobbyists for private companies.
If we cast our minds back some months we recollect that both Sajid Javid — Johnson’s first chancellor — and Chuka Umunna found themselves at a loose end and both joined JP Morgan.
That for those who missed the connection this is the finance entity that put up the £20 billion to load the now disintegrating Super League with debt. The same one that paid out $920m after bosses admitted violating US federal securities laws and traders at JP Morgan’s London office built up huge losses in derivatives trades.
This is a corrupt and alien world and short of the public appropriation of this parasitic class Labour should argue that the revolving door between public office and the private sector be nailed shut.
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