Flat denial

FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa (The Philippine Star) - May 1, 2021 - 12:00am

A poster plastered in my neighborhood declares “Cronyism is English for Corruption.” Elections are less than a week away in the UK, the biggest since 1973, when local government was reorganized. A vote last year was delayed due to the pandemic. About 48 million people can vote to elect about 5,000 candidates to positions of power. Political posters can be seen all over the place, though nowhere near the proliferation you get in the Philippines. The same could be said for corruption and cronyism. But I digress.

That poster refers to allegations of what’s come to be called “Tory sleaze.” A poll for the “i” newspaper found that 50 percent of voters think there is a “culture of sleaze” in the government following a series of damaging revelations about the way the ruling Conservative or Tory Party and Prime Minister Boris Johnson operate.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock is being accused of “cronyism at the heart of government” by the opposition Labour Party, after it was revealed he has been given shares in a family firm that has been approved to provide services to the National Health Service (NHS). A government spokesman has said Hancock acted “entirely properly in these circumstances. All declarations of interest have been made in accordance with the ministerial code. Ministers have no involvement in the awarding of these contracts, and no conflict of interest arises.”

A former Conservative prime minister, David Cameron, has been under fire for allegedly lobbying current government ministers to support finance firm Greensill Capital using COVID relief funds. Cameron reportedly asked Chancellor (Finance Minister) Rishi Sunak and other ministers to save it and had also set up a “private drink” between the company’s founder and health secretary Matt Hancock. Cameron has admitted he should have communicated with the Government “through only the most formal of channels.” The company went bankrupt anyway.

The story getting the most oxygen involves the PM’s private residence at Number 11 Downing street, where he lives with Carrie Symonds, the so-called “Fiancée-in-Chief” and their young son. PMs are given a budget from public funds of £30,000 a year to refurbish the residence. But there’s been speculation Johnson’s final bill came to as much as £200,000. Then, Mr. Johnson’s former chief adviser Dominic Cummings claimed the prime minister had planned to solve this shortfall by having donors “secretly pay” for the work.

Cummings said this would have been “unethical, foolish, possibly illegal” and would mean the PM “almost certainly broke the rules on proper disclosure of political donations if conducted in the way he intended.” PM Johnson insisted “I covered the costs” during an angry exchange with Labour leader Keir Starmer at Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons. Nevertheless he still repeatedly refused to answer questions about whether any money was initially loaned to cover the costs.

There’s a long running feud between Cummings and Symonds, in the end Symonds stayed and Cummings left. Symonds is a respected political operator and strategic communications professional in her own right and exerts political influence over the PM. Cummings is not taking his sacking graciously. Not only has he revealed the flat decoration scandal, he’s also revealed Johnson assured inventor and entrepreneur James Dyson that his employees would not have to pay extra tax if they came to the UK to make ventilators during the pandemic.

Dyson, whose firm is now based in Singapore, sent text messages in March 2020 directly to the PM who immediately replied: “I will fix it.” Johnson has said he did everything he could to get the right equipment.

In response to the political aftermath, Dyson has said it’s “absurd to suggest that the urgent correspondence was anything other than seeking compliance with rules” and that his company did not receive “any benefit from the project.” But the Labour Party called the revelations “jaw-dropping.” “Frankly it stinks that a billionaire businessman can text the prime minister and get an immediate response and, apparently, an immediate change in policy,” said Lucy Powell, Labour Shadow Business Minister.

Cummings is also responsible for spilling the beans on Johnson’s apparent temper tantrum when he felt he was being pushed into agreeing to the four-week lockdown across England in November. It was recommended months earlier by Sage scientists to limit soaring coronavirus cases. “No more ****ing lockdowns – let the bodies pile high in their thousands,” the PM reportedly shouted, from a Downing Street office after a crunch meeting with ministers, in which he reluctantly approved the lockdown. Various news outlets have confirmed the story with unnamed sources, though various officials and Johnson himself have denied it on the record. There are growing calls for a public inquiry into the government handling of a pandemic that left the UK with one of the worst death tolls among major economies last year.

The Electoral Commission is already investigating the matter of the financing of the PM’s flat. The question is whether the Conservative Party advanced £58,000 to the Cabinet Office (the government department responsible for Downing Street) to cover the cost of the refurbishment. In a statement, the commission said: “There are reasonable grounds to suspect that an offense or offenses may have occurred.” If a politician accepts money from a donor – either as a gift or as a loan – they are expected to make that information public. If kept secret, the concern is that it might be used to gain favors or political influence.

The media here has shown various images of the flat taken when Cameron was residing there, and other work by the posh interior decorator who was given the job of doing it up for Johnson and Symonds. Tatler magazine, chronicler of the high society, wrote the original account of the renovation, saying, “By all accounts, (it is) much improved from what a visitor calls the ‘John Lewis furniture nightmare’ of the (former PM Theresa) May years.” John Lewis is a high street department store, but in a society so sensitive to class distinctions, the comment reeks of aristocratic extravagance that stinks even worse because of the PM’s mysterious failure to reveal who paid for it initially.

It’s being called “Wallpapergate” and the “Cash for Curtains” scandal. Opposition leader Starmer trolled Johnson by sampling wallpaper at John Lewis; Johnson says the row is a “farrago of nonsense.” You could call it a flat denial.

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