Can you smell something?
Few things galvanise the media like a political scandal – especially one that involves a litany of government misdoings.
The current commotion originally arose when some questionable lobbying of ministers by ex-PM David Cameron came to light..
This is not exactly a new phenomenon. In bygone days, hopefuls looking to gain positions or patronage could be found camped out in ante-rooms at the royal courts.
As power shifted from monarchs to elected legislatures, so those seeking favours relocated their efforts to the parliamentary lobby - hence the name.
What’s important in a modern democracy is that the process of influencing decision-makers is liable to public scrutiny. The fact that Cameron’s activities only came to light through a series of well-sourced leaks tells us much about the government’s transparency, or rather, the lack of it.
Despite official assurances that ministers have done nothing wrong and that details will be forthcoming, this is already an administration with a record of promising “full accounts” that somehow never manage to see the light of day.
In a questionable effort at retaliation, Downing Street’s leak detector singled out an embittered ex-aide with questionable eyesight.
This suggestion as to the identity of a “chatty rat” was snapped up by newspapers who were certain Cummings would respond in kind. Dom didn’t let them down.
The former right-hand man was soon saying some rather nasty things about his old boss – and promising sight of a dossier blaming Johnson for how UK borders were still open months after the COVID outbreak.
Labour have struggled to keep pace. That’s because this is not something they put out there. Even so, while they should be promising to clean up politics if in power they come across instead like classroom tattle-tales who complain to Miss that the big boys are being naughty.
Meanwhile, you can feel frustration among tory backbenchers as an accident-prone leadership keeps dropping the ball. If it’s not costly flat renovations or tax deals for entrepreneurs then it’s alleged comments about piles of bodies and even suggestions that ministers had advance knowledge of the super league.
No-one has yet broken ranks but a former minister anonymously shared the view that the party regards Johnson’s leadership as a transactional arrangement. So long as he continues to deliver votes, so his position is secure and people are prepared to put up with his goofs. Things will change the moment he falters.
A good result next Thursday could have the PM smelling of success. If he does badly, then the whiff of something else could get stronger.
When wheels get greased in government
Instances of illicit fingers in the procurement pie and other misdemeanours are nothing new in British political history.
Back in 1912, a government contract awarded to telegraphy firm Marconi signalled trouble when it transpired that a group of ministers held financial interests in the company. One of these was a certain David Lloyd-George, who later went on to become PM.
Sleaze dogged John Major’s government like a bad smell. His “Back to Basics” campaign morphed into “Basic Instinct” as the tabloids uncovered one serious cabinet indiscretion after another.
It all culminated in the “Cash for Questions” scandal when a couple of MPs were outed for accepting payment to table parliamentary questions on behalf of Harrods boss, Mohamed Al-Fayed.
A few years later, “Loans for Lordships” exposed how Tony Blair had exploited a loophole whereby loans to political parties provided at commercial interest rates were exempt from declaration rules. A number of those who lent funds to Labour coincidently gained peerages
Some weeks ago, a clerical mishap revealed how a former tory parliamentary candidate and party donor brokered a £100m government deal to buy protective gear. A court had earlier decided Health Secretary Matt Hancock had acted unlawfully for failing to publish details of the deal as required.
A government spokesperson insisted that ministers have no part in deciding who gets contracts. Unfortunately, there’s no knowing if the civil servant who gave that assurance won’t be working for the contractor in a few months’ time.