AGAINST THE WALLHow Johnson’s Cronyism Contributed to his Woeful Mishandling of the Coronavirus Pandemic
From “she’s buying gold wallpaper” to “let the bodies pile high”, questions must be asked about the priority the Prime Minister gave to the pandemic when it emerged last year – at the same time as he was worrying about matters closer to home
Scandals involving lobbying, money and allegations of Government cronyism are often hard to visualise. By necessity, these kinds of implicit deals between moneyed men and hungry politicians take place in secret, where a lack of public scrutiny can allow private interests to flourish.
Even the £3 billion worth of public contracts, awarded to Conservative Party donors and associates during the Coronavirus pandemic in the past year are hard to imagine or engage with. It all sounds like numbers and noise. Technicalities and business.
In order for a scandal to strike the public imagination and ignite widespread outrage, people need a clear-cut and provocative instance. And the expensive decor which the Prime Minister and his partner Carrie Symonds commissioned last year for their flat at No. 11 Downing Street seems to have done just that.
Already, wits are referring back to the damaging ‘Cash for Questions’ scandal that dogged the Conservative Government 30 years ago, with an updated version: ‘Cash for Curtains’. Others have gone back even further in time to the ancien régime of pre-revolutionary France and re-dubbed the Prime Minister’s partner ‘Carrie Antoinette’ – after her alleged complaints that Theresa May had left the Downing Street flat with a “John Lewis furniture nightmare” were said to be capable of resonating with swathes of the public for whom the department store is considered upmarket.
But, beyond the humour and satire, there is a very damaging association at work for Boris Johnson: a direct connection between allegations of cronyism and sleaze, and his well-documented mishandling of the Coronavirus pandemic, which has taken the lives of 150,000 British citizens – one of the worst death rates in Europe and a horrific state of affairs on which his Government is keen to dodge any scrutiny.
An Unsafe Haven
The flat above No. 11 Downing Street is the official residence of every Prime Minister and comes with a £30,000 annual budget, drawn from the public purse, for them to spend on redecorating the space.
Since 1997, nearly £500,000 has been spent on upgrades to the four-bedroom flat – but, when Johnson and Carrie Symonds became the occupants in July 2019, reports surfaced that they were planning an overhaul that would transform it into a “high society haven”.
By all accounts, and certainly those printed in the national press in recent days, the revamp quickly took on a life of its own – sapping the Prime Minister’s time and focus. Symonds wanted to model the flat on 5 Hertford Street, a Mayfair club owned by the step-brother of Conservative peer Lord Zac Goldsmith – a close friend of both Symonds and Johnson – with wallpaper alone costing at least £14,000.
Even at the time, many noted that, in the early days of the Coronavirus crisis emerging, the Prime Minister seemed distracted. On 30 January, the World Health Organisation declared that the rapid spread of COVID-19 was a “public health emergency of international concern”. Just a week earlier, the Chinese city of Wuhan had implemented the world’s first Coronavirus lockdown. In Britain, the leadership was very far away from becoming concerned.
Over the next month, officials instead became alarmed by a different problem entirely – the issue of the Prime Minister’s flat renovation and its funding. This anxiety from civil servants, and the Prime Minister’s wandering priorities, coincided with a series of meetings held by COBRA – the body that plans and reacts to national emergencies – about the unfolding global public health crisis.
Between last January and February, the Prime Minister missed five of these meetings. While various national agencies and experts were convened for some of the summits, Johnson was to be found at Chevening, a 17th Century mansion in Kent.
Enter: ‘Herd Immunity’
The Prime Minister’s apathy towards the Coronavirus crisis, however, only seemed to compound over time.
Speaking ahead of post-Brexit trade talks on 3 February last year in Greenwich, Johnson appeared to suggest that Britain should take a ‘Superman’ approach to the virus by resisting the urge to restrict economic freedoms as a means of controlling the disease.
“We are starting to hear some bizarre autarkic rhetoric,” he said, “when barriers are going up, and when there is a risk that new diseases such as Coronavirus will trigger a panic and a desire for market segregation that go beyond what is medically rational to the point of doing real and unnecessary economic damage, then at that moment humanity needs some Government somewhere that is willing at least to make the case powerfully for freedom of exchange.”
He went on to suggest that the UK would be the country “ready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles and leap into the phone booth and emerge with its cloak flowing as the supercharged champion”.
As the first wave of COVID-19 pummelled British shores, this notion pervaded in Government – encapsulated by the term ‘herd immunity’.
Exposed by The Sunday Times and others, herd immunity had captured the imagination of Downing Street, with high-ranking individuals believing that the elderly and vulnerable could be shielded from the disease while letting it spread among the population at large – theoretically building up widespread resistance. It is an approach which has never before been used in epidemiology except through vaccination.
There was even talk of “chicken pox parties”, the BBC has reported, with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte reportedly confiding in his Heath Minister that Johnson “told me that he wants herd immunity”.
All the while, Johnson was “having to take time out from crisis meetings on the pandemic to deal with the issue his advisors called wallpaper-gate,” the Daily Mail reported this week with regards to the refurbishment of the Downing Street flat.
As Byline Times and others were breaking daily stories about the emergency COVID-19 contracts being awarded to Conservative Party donors, wallpaper-gate dragged on, becoming entangled in the same web of cronyism.
Last July, the Conservative Party reportedly gave a loan to the Prime Minister to cover the £58,000 he and Symonds spent on upgrading the flat (above and beyond his £30,000 annual allowance from the public purse).
Subsequently, on 23 October, prolific Conservative Party donor Lord David Brownlow informed the party HQ that he had given £58,000 to the party – a sum that would cover the costs of the renovation. The financing arrangement would be made via a charitable ‘Downing Street Trust’ – of which he expected to be appointed chair. However, it does not appear as though any such organisation has been set up, and Johnson has not yet declared the loan in his register of interests.
That same month, as the NHS buckled under a resurgence of Coronavirus cases, Johnson’s anti-lockdown belligerence made its most aggressive appearance. In a Downing Street meeting, during which the Prime Minister reluctantly agreed to a second lockdown, he reportedly shouted that he would rather “let the bodies pile high in their thousands” than impose a third lockdown. Multiple sources have confirmed this account to several different media outlets.
In late September, as reported by Byline Times, Johnson had met with a number of scientists who were publicly opposed to lockdowns. It appears that, as a result, he refrained from imposing any new restrictions, despite rapidly rising COVID-19 case numbers. A month later, however, he had no other choice.
Despite the Government’s efforts to procure personal protective equipment (PPE) for health and social care workers through a ‘VIP’ lane of approved firms at dramatically inflated prices (the PPE procured by the Government before last November would have cost £2.5 billion in 2019; in the chaos of 2020 it cost £15 billion), it did not reach the frontline in time. Thousands of health workers contracted COVID-19 during this period, and hundreds died.
The Government’s cronyism cannot even be lauded for its efficiency – and neither can the man leading it from the top.
For the past few years, Boris Johnson has appeared to be an almost untouchable politician.
His reputation for taking liberties with the truth seems to have been discounted by the electorate. They seemed to have believed the Prime Minister when he said that the Government did “everything we could” to control the pandemic.
But Teflon coatings wear off. What didn’t use to stick begins to permanently stain.
Though the British public has seemingly accepted Johnson’s chaotic manner, his sexual adventures, and even apparently his desire to look after his mates when it comes to the public purse, will they accept the stark contrast between a man obsessed with how to avoid paying for his partner’s lavish taste in wallpaper and curtains, at the same time as he was overseeing the biggest death toll this country has suffered since World War Two?
The COVID-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK group recently wrote a seventh letter to the Prime Minister, imploring him to meet with grieving families at the National COVID Memorial Wall in central London, to “walk its length” and honour all of the victims of the virus. The request follows constant questions to the Government as to when a date will be set for a full, independent inquiry into the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in Britain.
It seems unlikely that the consequences of Johnson’s brazen lack of care for human life can evade him forever. At the very least, he is a man who now finds himself against the wall.