Today
Mon 25 October 2021

With a tabloid feeding frenzy over a minister’s alleged affair, Sam Bright, Peter Jukes and Hardeep Matharu explore the wider public issues concealed by personal scandal

While most of the United Kingdom was suffering from the greatest pandemic for a hundred years, and a chaotic late lockdown was leading to one of the highest Coronavirus mortality rates in the world, Boris Johnson’s Government was signing hundreds of million-pound contracts to deal with the crisis, without competition or transparency.

Dormant companies, spontaneous start-ups and firms with links to Government figures and the Conservative Party were all harvesting huge deals – while their friends were being appointed to positions of power. 

Since last April 2020, Byline Times was almost single-handedly logging the receipts of these crony contracts and appointments. By last autumn, a steady flow of stories about questionable contracts had turned into a tsunami. As Byline Times and The Citizens have recorded, at least £3 billion in COVID-19 contracts have been awarded to Conservative donors and associates. The Good Law Project has been litigating the case against ministers and has been winning the argument. 

But much of the mainstream media was initially dismissive of this indication that billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money had been diverted to friends and allies of those in power during the crisis. Allegations of corruption – even the perception of corruption – plague other, less developed countries, not the ‘mother of Parliaments’. As former Downing Street chief aide Dominic Cummings wrote recently: “Most political hacks believe in the system.”

Today, with revelations that the Health and Social Care Secretary has been having an extra-marital affair with an unelected aide he personally hired with taxpayers’ money in the middle of a pandemic, another chapter in Britain’s cronyism saga is being written. Once again involving taxpayers’ money, conflicts of interest and a corrupting mode of behaviour within the British state, it is not simply a ‘private matter’. No amount of sleaze should distract from the deeper structural problems fostering it.


When the Personal Is Political

In a front-page story, the Sun newspaper has revealed that Matt Hancock has been having an affair with Gina Coladangelo, who he appointed as a non-executive director of the Department of Health and Social Care last year, with an annual pay packet for the part-time, advisory role of £15,000. 

Coladangelo and Hancock reportedly met at Oxford University and have remained close friends since. She is a shareholder at lobbying firm Luther Pendragon, as well as a communications director at homeware store Oliver Bonas, founded by her husband.

Her affair with Hancock again raises questions around conflicts of interest and cronyism at the heart of the Government. Coladangelo is likely to be well qualified for the role, but she also has intimate personal ties with the very person who appointed her to it. For her to conduct intimate relations with the Health and Social Care Secretary inside a Government building, at the taxpayers’ ultimate expense, in the middle of a pandemic, is eyebrow-raising by any reasonable standards, morality aside.

It is not known whether any of Coladangelo’s external interests benefitted from her role in government. However, she has stakes, and has worked in, lobbying: an industry paid to influence public policy and those in power. Some of Luther Pendragon’s former and current clients have reportedly won major Government contracts in recent months. Again, there is no evidence that Coladangelo helped to broker these deals – but Government rules rightly stipulate that ministers and officials should avoid any situation that might look like a conflict of interest, even if no commercial interference has occurred.


The Media and Selective Sleaze

The story of Hancock’s affair has striking parallels with that of Jennifer Arcuri, an American businesswoman who had a four-year-long sexual affair with Boris Johnson while he was Mayor of London and married to his now ex-wife.

Arcuri received more than £100,000 in public grants, including one from an agency set up by Johnson, during this time and was given coveted places on trade missions to New York and Tel Aviv alongside Johnson, despite failing to meet the criteria for those trips. While Arcuri denies that she financially benefited from her relationship with Johnson – and the now Prime Minister has avoided a criminal investigation into the matter – it demonstrates the same blurring of personal, political and commercial interests as the Hancock-Coladangelo affair. 

Johnson’s response to the matter was that he had done nothing wrong and had acted with “integrity” and the entire scandal received little mainstream media coverage, considering the gravity of the concerns it raised.

When Arcuri came forward in March with more details of her relationship with Johnson to the Daily Mirror, the BBC failed to cover the updates at all – telling Byline Times that “stories are chosen due to their editorial merit” and that it had “covered the issue substantially when there have been newsworthy updates”, implying that this wasn’t one. No sustained media pressure was applied to Johnson to clarify the potential conflicts of interest around his affair with Arcuri; instead it has merely been added to a collection of events which show that ‘Boris is Boris’ just as boys will be boys.

Today’s Sun story, weaponising personal material on public figures with timely kompromat, has an echo of the ‘Summer of Sleaze’ 30 years ago, when Cabinet ministers and senior politicians were regularly targeted by ‘kiss and tells’ and other revelations about their private lives. 

The images published by the Sun of Hancock and Coladangelo kissing appear to have come from security footage inside the Department of Health and Social Care – with former chief prosecutor Nazir Afzal observing: “These are images from within his office – not paparazzi. You don’t get them without high-level access.” 

The footage clearly raises questions about who wanted Hancock’s affair to be in the public domain and why. But it is also indicative of a wider press and politics complicity. 

As reported at a trial of News UK journalists after the phone-hacking scandal, the Sun newspaper used to have a seven-foot high safe filled with “eye-popping” material on politicians and celebrities which employees called the “black museum”. And as the recently published independent panel report confirmed, the suspects in the Daniel Morgan murder – private investigators – were at the centre of a “hub of corruption” through the 1990s, involved in exposing sex scandals over the Conservative Culture Minister David Mellor and the then Liberal Democrat Leader Paddy Ashdown. 

We now know that many of these kinds of stories involved unlawful ‘dark arts’ such as phone-hacking or money changing hands with police officers. All too often these privacy intrusions, with a spurious ‘public interest’ defence, were in the private interest of various rival party factions and their media allies. 


No Accountability Required

Matt Hancock has said he is “very sorry” for his actions, admits that he broke social distancing guidelines by kissing his aide, and has asked for “privacy” for his family. He will not resign and Boris Johnson has said he “accepts his apology and considers the matter closed”.

For all the potential conflicts of interest, cronyism, corrupting behaviour and downright incompetence, nothing will – again – come of it. All too frequently in Britain, we are finding out how flimsy our unwritten constitution is. Nothing can compel Matt Hancock to resign. Nothing can make Boris Johnson demand responsibility from his ministers, or demand accountability of himself. Our political system is predicated on good chaps being in power. What happens when they are not? 

For Hancock and Johnson – and Priti Patel, Gavin Williamson, and all of the rest – norms and conventions are inconvenient relics to be brushed aside. And this is exactly what is happening – along with the remnants of an accountable, representative democracy in Britain today.

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