一种nywhere I’ve visited – market towns, Barratt estates, inner cities – and asked strangers their opinions on politics, the answers quickly drift in a predictable direction: politicians are all on the take, they’re in it for themselves, lining their pockets and taking us all for a ride. Politicians are less trusted than advertising executives – only one in seven trusts them to be honest – which is why the guaranteed route to receiving applause from a Question Time audience is to dismiss politicians as “all the same”. Episodes such as the expenses scandal, quite predictably, poured accelerant over an already raging bonfire of cynicism: the number of voters believing MPs put their own interests above all else surged.
If any good emerged from Boris Johnson reportedly declaring he would rather see the “bodies pile high” than lock down the country, it was that we would finally discuss how the government oversaw a pandemic death toll three times higher than the Luftwaffe managed in the blitz. 反而, we are now debating John Lewis curtains. That is not to dismiss the validity of the scrutiny the prime minister is under. A man sacked twice for deceit is a proven and objective liar; a man who, 12 几年前, dismissed his £250,000 second salary from the Telegraph as “chicken feed” clearly enjoys a standard of living most would deem luxurious as intolerable squalor. If a prime minister can receive secret lumps of money from anonymous wealthy donors, the electorate is denied the ability to scrutinise if there are any government rewards for such generosity.
But the line of attack being deployed against the government fails on two basic counts. 第一的, it is not remotely as grave as wilfully allowing tens of thousands to suffer premature deaths: the government’s “first duty is to protect the public in the most basic way”, as Johnson himself once put it. Secondly, 然而, it is an argument that merely risks compounding the cynicism most of the public already has towards politics and politicians in general. This harms the left the most, because the public is more likely to be sceptical of ambitious programmes for social change if it believes those charged with delivering it tend to be corrupt and dishonest.
The dividing line Keir Starmer’s team should instead opt for is that the Tories represent an elite that looks after its own, one Labour is committed to challenging. This is, after all, the narrative that knits together the various scandals of the past few weeks. Take the David Cameron lobbying scandal: it speaks to the “revolving door” that is a pillar of the British establishment, in which politicians and civil servants are generously remunerated by private sector clients exploiting connections and insights gained through public duty and at public expense. Such a system allowed Bill Crothers, a top civil servant, to join the doomed financial firm Greensill Capital while still employed by the public purse, and for Cameron, the former prime minister, to exploit his influence with senior Conservatives to lobby for the company to be granted public money. The “revolving door” between business and government explains how, 例如, major accountancy firms second staff to the Treasury to help draw up tax laws, 然后 advise their wealthy clients to exploit loopholes in laws they helped write.
That PPE suppliers with impeccable Conservative connections were granted government contracts is, 当然, a signature example of an elite that looks after its own. For those in the “fast track VIP lane”, government contracts were sprinkled like confetti: one was handed to Public First, run by Rachel Wolf, who co-wrote the 2019 Tory manifesto, 和她的丈夫, James Frayne, who is a close ally of Michael Gove.
It can explain, 也, how Matt Hancock’s former neighbour was handed a contract to supply tens of millions of vials for NHS Covid tests despite having no relevant experience. And it also explains why test and trace was handed to scandal-ridden private contractors such as Serco, previously 被罚款 for tagging prisoners who were dead, and whose woeful failure compounded our national tragedy. None of this is new, 当然: the private office of the former health secretary, Andrew Lansley, 曾是 bankrolled by the former head of one of the NHS’s biggest private health providers. Firms that donated to the Tories, 同时, were handed juicy NHS contracts long before Covid-19 struck British shores.
The way in which Johnson reflects this narrative, personally benefiting from his connections, speaks for itself – but so too do his alleged comments about letting Covid rip, rather than allowing British business to be further damaged. Both Johnson and his chancellor, Rishi Sunak – who invited lockdown sceptics to Downing Street in a successful mission to head off renewed restrictions last September – both resisted shutting down the country because of the potential damage it would inflict on private business interests. That this was disastrously counterproductive on its own terms – a public health crisis allowed to spiral out of control means more severe economic consequences, as this unprecedented peacetime catastrophe underlines – is irrelevant to the critical point: our rulers believed the value of human life was secondary to economic interests, specifically the ability to make profit.
Yet Labour’s top team seem pathologically averse to launching such an assault. Partly it is ideological: any semblance of class politics must be buried in a Corbynite graveyard. But partly it would involve a reckoning with the ghosts of New Labour past, such as Peter Mandelson, himself forced to resign from government over a secret loan, and Tony Blair, a lobbyist in the pay of some of the world’s most abhorrent dictatorships. Yet both are reportedly back in Labour’s fold: the party’s candidate in the Hartlepool byelection – in which Starmer’s team have privately resigned themselves to defeat – recently gained Mandelson’s personal endorsement.
A narrative of challenging a self-interested and shameless elite would also logically commit Labour to a vision of radically redistributing wealth and power: there is ever-dwindling evidence that they wish to do so. 反而, Labour is left lecturing the Conservatives about the Nolan principles on public life – are they determined to extinguish government scandal with boredom? – while the public are left baffled about the prime minister’s curtains. Starmer’s team may discover that the legacy of this scandal is not the downfall of a self-evidently disreputable prime minister, but a cynicism towards politics that will swallow up Labour, 也.