Today
Sun 25 July 2021

With his dual tactics of projection and deflection, the current Prime Minister has pulled off a masterstroke by launching an inquiry into the former Prime Minister’s conflicts of interest, says Hardeep Matharu

Following months of investigation revealing that Boris Johnson’s Government awarded £3 billion in Coronavirus contracts to companies with ties to Conservative donors and associates; questions being raised about British political corruption and cronyism by international media; the independent spending watchdog questioning the Government’s transparency in setting up a ‘high-priority’ lane for PPE suppliers with political links; and fresh claims by Jennifer Arcuri that she had a four-year-long sexual relationship with Johnson while benefiting from public money when he was Mayor of London, the Government has launched an inquiry… into the conflicts of interest of former Prime Minister David Cameron.

There is no doubt that Cameron has serious questions to answer over his lobbying of senior Government ministers – including the Chancellor and Health and Social Care Secretary – on behalf of the collapsed firm Greensill Capital, in which he had shares. Cameron became an advisor for the firm in 2018, two years after leaving government.

As the effects of the Coronavirus crisis took hold, it has emerged that Cameron personally met, and communicated with, a number of Government insiders about securing thousands of pounds in emergency COVID loans for the financial services company. He sent messages on personal mobile phones and had an informal drink with Matt Hancock.  

Although his attempts did not lead to a change in the Government’s position on Greensill, Cameron has now acknowledged that “as a former Prime Minister, I accept that communications with government need to be done through only the most formal of channels, so there can be no room for misinterpretation”.

In response, Johnson’s administration has said a formal inquiry will take place, reportedly with a remit to recommend changes to lobbying regulations.  

While doubts have already been voiced about the inquiry’s potential robustness – it will be led by lawyer Nigel Boardman, whose legal firm Slaughter and May previously challenged the Cameron Government when it proposed changes to lobbying rules – its announcement is a genius sleight of hand by Boris Johnson.

For Cameron – a man who lost the EU Referendum for Remainers, campaigned for the EU against Brexiters, and is beloved of no one – will now provide a veneer of accountability and scrutiny of standards in public life, which the current Prime Minister and his Cabinet ministers are all so keen to dodge at every turn.

It shifts the attention onto Cameron, muddying the waters with regards to the potentially numerous conflicts of interests that Johnson is himself implicated in. And in the ‘hypernormalised’ state Britain finds itself – in which we know Johnson has much to hide but seem to have to go along with his claims that he hasn’t – it appears that the Prime Minister will continue to get away with it. 

Instead of also interrogating the Government about why it created a ‘VIP channel’ during the Coronavirus crisis for firms which could procure personal protective equipment, without contracts being subject to competitive tender, and demanding that it release details of all the sources which benefited from this special treatment, the mainstream press is content with its excellent investigations into the dealings of the former Prime Minister.

Instead of holding the feet of the Government to the fire about why its own former chief scientist has said that he is “extremely worried” about the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and “the processes by which public money has been distributed to private sector companies without due process” because this “really smells of corruption”, the same newspapers investigating David Cameron with such gusto lack the same level of interest in a public health crisis in which 150,000 people have died on the current Prime Minister’s watch.

And, amidst its extensive coverage of the Greensill scandal, BBC News has still not covered fresh allegations about Jennifer Arcuri’s four-year-long sexual affair with Boris Johnson, while he was Mayor of London, in any meaningful way. With Johnson clearing himself of any potential wrongdoing – his press secretary Allegra Stratton claimed that he has “no case to answer” and that he “does believe in the wider principles of integrity and honesty” – it seems to be ‘case closed’.

With David Cameron a worthy scapegoat through which to examine issues such as transparency, accountability, conflicts of interest and standards in public life, Boris Johnson has pulled off a masterstroke. By using the psychological tactic of projection (accusing others of what you are yourself guilty of) and placing the accusation centre table, not only can the Prime Minister deflect concerns around his Government’s own questionable dealings on these very issues, he can once again show that he is above the accepted norms that govern British political life. 

With its unwritten constitution, this country’s precarious democracy is built on the assumption that good people will be in power. By launching this inquiry – without any discussion by opposition politicians or the mainstream media about whether similar accountability will be allowed with regards to his own, current Government – Johnson affirms to himself once more that the normal rules don’t apply to him. And that we will all just continue to go along with it.

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