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Will Johnson’s ‘Major Sleaze’ Allegations Stick when Chumocracy is Already ‘Just the Way the World Works?’

Maheen Behrana doubts whether Keir Starmer’s new barb will resonate with the general public

Boris Johnson at Prime Minister’s Questions on 28 April 2021. Photo: UK Parliament

Will Johnson’s ‘Major Sleaze’ Allegations Stick when Chumocracy is Already ‘Just the Way the World Works?’

Maheen Behrana doubts whether Keir Starmer’s new barb will resonate with the general public

In recent days, the Labour Party has adopted a new favourite word: sleaze. It is punchy and neatly captures the multitude of scandals currently engulfing the Government.

From David Cameron and the Greensill affair to James Dyson’s apparent hotline to Boris Johnson, there appears to be an endless list of examples of the Conservatives helping (or at least trying to help) those who help them.

At Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday, a heated exchange unfolded between Labour Leader Keir Starmer and Johnson about the latest sleaze-ridden subject: the renovation of Johnson’s Downing Street flat. The question largely hinges on who paid for the initial renovation and whether the bill was footed by a donation from Conservative peer Lord David Brownlow.

Tackling Johnson on the matter, Starmer brought the interaction to a climax as he labelled his opponent ‘Major Sleaze’ – leaving the Prime Minister rather frazzled.

It is hard to argue with Labour’s argument – the Conservative Party has been dogged by accusations of cronyism for the past year and the evidence seems to get more sordid and shameful by the day.

However, opinion is an uncertain science. While a recent Ipsos MORI poll found that the Conservatives’ lead over Labour is narrowing, other surveys – such as the one carried out by Redfield & Wilton Strategies – suggest that the party’s dominance remains.

While each scandal does come with a shock factor, whether this will translate into lasting damage is yet to be seen. And as sleaze begets more sleaze, will there come a point where the public is simply inured to this type of behaviour?

Unfortunately, there is some evidence to suggest that it already is. When YouGov used to run a ‘sleaze’ tracker in 2015, all parties other than the Greens were deemed sleazy by at least 30% of people, with the Conservatives on 44%. Imagine what that sleaze tracker might say now.


But the issue goes far beyond the public’s low expectations of its politicians. Sleaze is a system we all participate in, even if we call it by a different name.

For example, only one in seven people believe that using personal connections to get your child a job is bad for society. This acceptance of daily nepotism encourages the selection of employees based on their connections, and closes off avenues for progress to genuinely qualified candidates. And yet, this jobs-for-mates economy is rarely questioned – it is simply seen as ‘the way the world works’.

Many of us work in industries where it is evident that a good word or a friendly relationship can count for far more than an official tendering process. We have come to accept it from the organisations we work in, so perhaps we are not that surprised when we see these same trends manifesting in politics.

Like most people, I am far from immune from criticism on this front. I know people have put in a good word for me when it comes to job opportunities and I have done the same for friends. Sometimes, this is the only way to open the many closed doors that people face. It is easy to feel that you must play by the rules of the system or be swallowed up by it. 

Consider workplace referral schemes. Often criticised for failing to produce diverse workplaces, many companies use them to save time and money by getting existing employees to recommend their friends and connections for roles. Usually, such schemes award existing employees with a referral bonus.

Why such practices are acceptable is unclear. It is surely self-evident that referral schemes will narrow a workplace’s pool of employees and bypass the best people for the job. Yet, while people have repeatedly questioned whether referral schemes are good for business (and society), they are rarely framed in the context of ‘sleaze’.

The same can be said for the practice of ‘networking’. It is near-universally accepted that, to get ahead in your career, making the right connections is essential. The necessity of networking is ingrained in so many industries – not least journalism. Again, such practices are rarely denounced as sleazy.

And perhaps this is the central problem for the Labour Party. Conservative sleaze, corruption and chumocracy often just look like a permutation of what people see themselves doing on a daily basis.

Of course, Boris Johnson being at the beck and call of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is more sinister than the system of favours that rules our workplaces. But there are few people who can’t relate to the hastily-tapped out text-speak of the Prime Minister’s promises to James Dyson. Many of us have been there, promising a last-minute favour to a friend.

One of Johnson’s core currencies with voters is relatability. It seems that, as long as his behaviour mirrors what is found in wider society, people will give him the benefit of the doubt. We are yet to see how the flat fiasco will pan out, but if it dents his popularity it will most likely be for his snobbery about John Lewis rather than anything else.

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