Without honest and principled leadership, British politics will remain tarnished by sleaze

Ultimately, Britain’s reputation as a relatively honest country – if not as squeaky clean as Denmark or New Zealand – comes down to the self-discipline and values of those in charge

Vince Cable
Tuesday 09 November 2021 13:40
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<p>‘A country’s integrity depends first of all on its leadership’ </p>

‘A country’s integrity depends first of all on its leadership’

In 2021 Britain, the chances of a member of the public being solicited for a bribe by a civil servant or local government official, a police officer, a judge or any other figure of authority is close to zero. Government ministers do not seek or receive brown envelopes full of money or their electronic equivalent. This is not Nigeria or Russia.

So why all the current fuss about “political corruption”, as it has been described by Sir John Major, former Tory prime minister, or the more generic “sleaze” – an all-embracing description of bad behaviour by politicians which was first used to describe Sir John’s own government. His ministers’ and MPs’ misdeeds ranged from extra-marital sex to cash payments for asking parliamentary questions, to proven and convicted perjury.

The first step in dealing with an evil is to define it correctly. We immediately hit a problem that the current, and past, sleaze rows encompass wholly different abuses and range from procedural peccadillos – such as MPs being late with declarations of interest – to the kind of corrupt behaviour that might, indeed, raise eyebrows in Nigeria or Russia.

When these very different things are conflated, the public is confused and inclined to treat the whole business as a political game. I was delighted to see that the Liberal Democrats yesterday used one of their rare opportunities to initiate a parliamentary debate to clarify the sleaze allegations.

The particular focus of attention was the government’s cack-handed attempt to prevent disciplinary action in the case of one of its own MPs – Owen Paterson – who had made large sums acting as a paid advocate for a company outside parliamentary rules. There was almost unbroken consensus that he had breached the rules, but some differences of opinion as to the fairness and effectiveness of the system which determined a breach had occurred. In a very parliamentary way, the Standards Committee will now look in detail at its own code and procedures, and report back.

But a bigger question is whether there is a wider erosion of standards in public life amounting to “corruption”. There are several specific areas of concern.

The first concerns money-for-favours. In the UK, as in other democracies like India and the USA, election campaigning is expensive. A lot of the money needed is raised from rich individuals, some of whom are idealists or idealogues, but some of whom want a favour in return. In Britain, a particularly valuable “favour” is a seat in the appointed House of Lords. And for a billionaire, a £3m donation, currently the going rate, is small change.

It is, of course, a criminal offence to “sell” peerages but, in the absence of incriminating taped conversations, it’s also unprovable. No one expects the police to get involved, even in very blatant recent cases.

The “revelations” in a Sunday newspaper that certain Conservative Party officials would be automatically ennobled for party fundraising was merely the latest exposure of a common practice. As a party leader, I was regularly approached for peerages by people who also happened to be very rich. As I didn’t have peerages to give out, the supplicants went away empty handed, including a Conservative whose peerage hadn’t arrived after a big donation to his own party and who invited me to do better (a few months later, he got what he wanted, presumably by increasing his donation).

What is to be done? One approach is to sell peerages through a transparent auction, raising money for good causes which could include political parties. The great Liberal prime minister, Lloyd George, wanted to sell peerages openly. Americans seem to have a system of selling ambassadorships which is perfectly legal. But the House of Lords is different. It legislates. Buying a vote to make laws is unconscionable in a serious democracy. Lords reform, to replace the system of appointments with elections should be a priority. But it isn’t going to happen soon.

The other development which set alarm bells ringing for me was the fact that Randox, the medical diagnostics company which paid Owen Paterson for lobbying, has won around £600m to supply the NHS, seemingly outside the normal process of competitive tendering. Mr Paterson has paid the price for his activities but there has been no sanction for whoever provided the company with an inside track for contracts.

We know that, in the pandemic, all kinds of corners were cut in the interests of speed. But it is imperative that a return to normality involves a return to competitive bidding. One of my fears about Brexit is that the onerous EU rules around public procurement would be relaxed to allow cronyism in favour of politically favoured suppliers. We know from defence procurement, where the EU rules did not apply, that overpriced contracts and endless delays became common. A culture of favouritism, with or without corruption, can be deeply corrosive.

Then there is the evidence emerging daily of some MPs earning large sums from “consultancies’’ which usually involves the use of inside knowledge or contacts gained from a period in ministerial office. MPs have long been attacked over “second jobs” which range from the use of medical expertise to writing articles in newspapers to influence peddling. The last of these is what brings MPs into disrepute, whether or not they declare it according to correct procedures, but an outright ban on any work outside the Commons would make its members even more detached from the outside world.  A cap on outside earnings would be far more pragmatic.

But a wider issue that individual misdemeanours raised in the current outcry is the systematic abuse of power by a government cynically using the reach of what British constitutionalists have called “elected dictatorship”. In other words, there are few checks and balances on the power of governments with a secure majority in the House of Commons.

Those that have existed until recently – the courts and judicial review, independent public service broadcasting, and independent regulators and watchdogs – are under sustained attack here, as they are in other semi-democracies like Turkey and Hungary.

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Since the sleaze scandals of the Nineties and the revelation of large-scale abuses of expenses by MPs in 2009-10, a series of independent mechanisms have been put in place to strengthen the enforcement of standards amongst politicians, be they ministers or backbenchers. It was the parliamentary commissioner for standards who investigated and prosecuted Mr Paterson’s breach of the rules.

But she is under pressure because her investigations are covering unresolved questions around payment for the decoration of the prime minister’s Downing Street flat. One of the more disgraceful episodes of the last few days was the intervention of one of my successors as business secretary, seeking to curry favour with his boss in No 10 by calling into question the commissioner’s future.

Indeed, the whole embarrassing fiasco of the U-turn on the parliamentary standards process seems to have been originally prompted by a desire by the prime minister himself to resist scrutiny.

Ultimately, Britain’s reputation as a relatively honest country – if not as squeaky clean as Denmark or New Zealand – comes down to the self-discipline and values of those in charge.

A country’s integrity depends first of all on its leadership. Britain’s last prime minister but one is in disgrace for using his post-retirement position to peddle influence for big financial rewards, while the current incumbent makes no bones about his contempt for the rules around standards and probity. Nations, like fish, rot from the head down.

Sir Vince Cable is the former leader of the Liberal Democrats and served as secretary of state for business, innovation and skills from 2010 to 2015

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