Socialist Worker

Can Johnson escape another scandal?

by Alex Callinicos
Issue No. 2780

Boris Johnson at a Christmas carol concert when he was mayor of London

Boris Johnson at a Christmas carol concert when he was mayor of London (Pic: Andy Thornley/Flickr)


It’s undeniable that British politics is institutionally corrupt.

The most visible form is how ex-ministers and senior civil servants seek to cash in on their experience and connections when they leave government.

It is engaging in this practice that has been the undoing for the wretched Owen Paterson. The collapse of the dodgy financial firm Greensill Capital exposed the greed, not just of ex-prime minister David Cameron, but of retired officials who stuck their snouts in the trough.

Boris Johnson’s attempt to rescue Paterson and rewrite the rules governing MPs—reversed in 24 hours—has earned him an enormous amount of flak, especially from within his own Tory ranks.

It’s remarkable how Johnson engineered the shambles in Westminster while supposedly saving the planet in Glasgow.

Corruption

There’s widespread speculation that Johnson’s real target was Kathryn Stone, the independent parliamentary commissioner for standards.

Dominic Cummings has suggested Johnson wanted to force her out for fear she might turn her attention to the scandal surrounding the refurbishment of his Downing St flat.

I wouldn’t hold your breath. I can’t think of a British government that has been brought down by corruption.

David Lloyd George was the most corrupt prime minister since the development of mass politics. The centenary of his fall from power comes next year.

Lloyd George turned the sale of honours, which had been practised by previous prime ministers, into a business. He raised £3 million—the equivalent of £141 million today—for his own private political fund. This dwarfs the paltry £1 million Cameron is alleged to have got from Greensill.

The historian A J P Taylor adds that “the Conservative Party took an equal cut”.

But corruption didn’t bring Lloyd George down. His Tory partners tired of serving under a Liberal and revolted when he tried to distract them by provoking a war with the newly independent Turkish republic.

The 1963 Profumo scandal—which was about sex and spying in high places, not money —certainly contributed to the feeling of a decadent aristocratic Tory regime.

Labour leader Harold Wilson exploited this to the hilt. But his Tory opponent, the ex-earl of Home, still nearly won the 1964 general election.

“Tory sleaze” undermined John Major’s government in the 1990s. But its back had been broken by Black Wednesday—16 September 1992—when the pound was forced out of the European Monetary System despite a five percentage point hike in interest rates. The recently re-elected Tory government spent nearly five years waiting to die.

Corruption scandal—Tories used the pandemic for profit
Corruption scandal—Tories used the pandemic for profit
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The MPs’ expenses scandal burst out in 2009, when Gordon Brown was Labour prime minister. But his government was already dead in the water thanks to the outbreak of the global financial crisis in 2007-8—an event that Brown had boasted could never happen again.

So my guess is that, excluding something completely outrageous coming to light, Johnson will survive this mess of his own creation. Tory backbenchers may be disaffected, but he has delivered Brexit and a solid general election victory. Labour under the wooden right-wing leadership of Keir Starmer is no threat.

That doesn’t mean it’s plain sailing for Johnson. The biggest threat to his survival comes from the economy.

Last week the Bank of England predicted that inflation would peak at five percent next April.

It decided not to increase interest rates immediately because it fears that the burst of economic growth after pandemic restrictions were dropped last summer is dissipating—partly because Covid-19 infections remain so high.

Bank governor Andrew Bailey said “Inflation is clearly something that bites on people’s household incomes.”

The Resolution Foundation warned after the budget, “real wage and income growth areset to grind to a halt next year.

“Living standards stagnation remains the dominant feature of this era. In the 16 years leading up to 2008, average earnings grew by 36 percent. In the 16 years following 2008, real wages are forecast to have risen by just 2.4 percent in total”

It’s this “cost of living crunch” that might do for Johnson.


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