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Sleaze then and now: what’s changed?

When the Tory government of the early ’90s was brought down by sleaze, the papers focused on the salacious and sexual. Those MPs who denounced the corporate gravy train too would only go on to ride it, remembers SOLOMON HUGHES

BORIS JOHNSON’S problem with lockdown-breaking parties and other scandals is being widely compared to the “sleaze scandals” that helped bring down John Major in the 1990s.

In the words of an Express headline: “Tories on brink after ‘build-up of sleaze’ mirrors 90s downfall.”

The many interlocking scandals contributed a lot to Major losing the 1997 election.

There is a good reason to compare Johnson and Major’s “sleaze” problems — but it’s not the comparison most pundits are making.

Major’s “sleaze” scandal is remembered as all about MPs personal behaviour.

Major was trying to find a mission for his Tory government: he won the 1992 election, but economic times were hard and the new prime minister needed to have some kind of social dimension, to bolster the continuation of Thatcherite economics.

In 1993 he launched his “back to basics” slogan, calling for a “return to those old core values” including “self-discipline“ and “respect for the family and respect for the law.”

Because Major put “traditional family values” in his “back to basics” plan, many in the press saw this as a signal they could expose any MP who deviated from them — hence there where many “scandal” stories about MPs having affairs, being gay, or having unconventional sex.

Most of the stories were only “scandalous” in relation to Major making a push on “traditional morality” and the governments continued support for anti-gay legislation like Section 28.

So Major’s “sleaze” is chiefly remembered as being about MPs’ sexual exploits. But his scandals began with the exposure of a “cash for questions” operation, with MPs being paid by lobbyists to ask questions in the Commons. MPs’ second jobs then also became a serious issue.

Then, as now, the newspapers preferred to talk about relatively apolitical personal behaviour sleaze of parties and affairs.

Sometimes this was because they seemed to have more human interest or eye-catching details — like the sad case of the one male MP who died dressed in stockings and suspenders with his head covered and an orange segment in his mouth, in what appeared to be auto-erotic asphyxiation gone wrong.

Then, as now, many newspapers preferred the stories about “moral” rather than “financial” failings because they didn’t really like challenging big business

But the crisis was also driven by the more serious issue of big business buying favours.

Take for example a September 1993 Evening Standard article, “Blast for ex-Cabinet men in big company deals.”

This too was part of the Major sleaze scandal. The Standard reported: “Six ex-Cabinet ministers — including former chancellors Nigel Lawson and Norman Lamont — were accused by Labour today of offensive deals taking them into the boardrooms of companies for which they were responsible in government.”

The paper added: “In an outspoken attack, shadow chancellor Gordon Brown said the six had ‘walked straight from the Cabinet room to the boardroom in an “I’m all right, Jack” Tory culture’.”

Privatisation added to this scandal: industry secretary Norman Tebbit helped privatise British Telecom, then joined the British Telecom board.

Employment secretary Norman Fowler joined the board of security firm G4S which was given prison and prisoner transport contracts, even though they were then a laughing stock for allowing prisoners to escape.

Energy secretary Peter Walker privatised British Gas then joined the British Gas board.

Former chancellor Norman Lamont joined the board of Rothschilds, a bank that did very well from Tory privatisation.

Former chancellor Nigel Lawson joined the board of Barclays Bank, which had benefitted from deregulation.

Ministers cashing in and becoming corporate fat cats while wages and jobs were squeezed was a driving force in the sleaze scandal, then as now.

Brown used this sentiment, saying that ministers “cannot speak persuasively” against “boardroom excesses — which offend the British people’s basic principles of fairness — because so many ex-Cabinet ministers are themselves among the beneficiaries.”

Unfortunately, after Brown made political capital about denouncing Tory jobs-for-the-boys sleaze, the New Labour government elected on the back of disgust with Major did exactly the same thing, sometimes with the same firms.

Ex-home secretary John Reid joined G4S. Former health secretary Alan Milburn joined Bridgepoint Capital, the owner of health firms with NHS contracts. There were many more examples

Just the other day I was reminded by Thames Water’s fines that former Labour minister Ian Pearson is on their board.

Labour had so many “ex-ministers’ jobs” and “cash-for-access scandals” that Tory David Cameron made it part of his election campaign, with a 2010 speech denouncing the system: “We all know how it works. The lunches, the hospitality, the quiet word in your ear, the ex-ministers and ex-advisers for hire, helping big business find the right way to get its way.”

Cameron declared the Conservatives rejected this because “we believe in competition, not cronyism.”

But the 2010 Conservative-Lib Dem coalition and subsequent Tory governments jumped straight back into the process, with Cameron himself becoming one of the “ex-ministers for hire” as an adviser to financial firm Greensill before it went bust.

The coalition was a rare chance for Lib Dems to become ministers and also became a rare time for them to become ex-ministers for hire, with Nick Clegg becoming Facebook’s top lobbyist and Ed Davey moonlighting from his MP job with both a City law firm and an energy investment firm.

Which brings us back to the current scandal, which has ended up focusing on personal behaviour at lockdown parties, but really began with the scandal of Owen Paterson MP lobbying for his employer Randox labs and another host of second-jobbing MPs in the news.

Looking back over 30 years, MPs taking jobs with and lobbying for corporations isn’t a recurring scandal, it’s a permanent scandal — the thing that waxes and wanes is press attention, not the practice.

It is driven by 30 years of privatisation, contracting-out and deregulation by both political parties, which give corporations and lobbyists extra incentive to hire MPs.

It won’t be fixed by tweaks and codes of practice: only big changes in the underlying corporate-driven policymaking and outright bans on second jobs are likely to make a difference.


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