How politics is corrupted by cash
Published by The i paper (19th April, 2021)
Political careers all end in failure, according to a famous dictum, yet not all of those involved end up soiled and twisted after their time in the spotlight. Take the former United States president Jimmy Carter. Certainly his time at the top ended in dismal defeat, turfed out of office after one term in 1980 amid the Iran hostage crisis and economic gloom as voters turned to the optimism of Ronald Reagan. It was one of the biggest electoral landslides in presidential history, sending the Democrat back to his peanut farm in Georgia as a diminished figure saddled with huge debts.
Yet Carter is a modern political hero. Not for his four years in office, although that was more successful than seemed at the time. But he demands respect for his attitude over the four decades since he left office. The 39th president returned to his two-bedroom home and, despite severe financial struggles, rejected offers to join company boards or give speeches for big cheques, saying he did not wish to “capitalise financially on being in the White House”. Instead he wrote books, built houses for poorer citizens, promoted peace and devoted himself to humanitarian causes that included playing a key role in the eradication of a terrible tropical disease.
This modest former head of state still costs US taxpayers less than half as much as his successors in expenses. He takes commercial flights, not private jets loaned by billionaires and dictators. Such decency and nobility stands in sharp contrast not just to those men who followed him into the White House, but also to the money grubbing of our own recent political leaders.
Tony Blair led the way, cuddling up to bloodstained despots in the same way as did his pal Bill Clinton. Yet even Theresa May has managed to amass more than £1m after her dismal premiership, picking up six-figure sums for speeches offering her insights into ideas, leadership and “solutions”. This might seem puzzling. Anyone who has sat through a May speech would be tempted to hand over a hefty sum to avoid having to endure such torment again, while she is not a figure admired for ideology or inspired leadership. Perhaps she is a model of propriety.
Yet the latest lobbying scandal, crashing over the head of her predecessor David Cameron, gives us a glimpse into the sleazy nexus between politics and business. For it shows with shocking clarity how elites in Westminster and Whitehall are such easy prey for rich hustlers and firms on the make as they try to capitalise for self-enrichment on their connections and insights built up in office.
Lex Greensill, the financier at the centre of this scandal, was invited into the heart of government by his friend and former banking colleague Jeremy Heywood, then head of the Civil Service. The ambitious Australian used this critical opening as a springboard to spread his firm’s activities through the public sector, hoovering up prominent figures to help smooth his path. His known aides included not just a former prime minister but a former Labour home secretary, a former police chief, a former head of government procurement, a former NHS trust chief and even a former homelessness tsar in the Lords.
This is not the first time we have seen how our political system is corroded by cash. Yet the significance of this scandal is twofold. First, details from leaked emails have exposed precisely what politicians do to earn their big paydays. So we have seen how Cameron lobbied his protegé Matt Hancock to foist a pointless app on NHS staff, then emailed a key official who had worked under him to push the project. A Tory peer fixed meetings with the NHS chief executive and finance boss.
Greensill then secured introductions to persuade local NHS chiefs to back his product after meeting another Tory peer, head of the body that oversees hospital trusts. These emails show how Greensill exploited his political links to gain access to key people and data to promote his business, hidden behind guff about “democratising finance”.
Tory sources reportedly blame Labour “spies” in the Civil Service for leaking these details, yet any moles are performing a public duty by showing voters what takes place in the shadows of Whitehall. Bear in mind these revelations follow a string of other tawdry allegations including Boris Johnson’s abuse of mayoral office to aid a former lover, lucrative pandemic contracts for Tory pals, planning favours for a party donor and crass pork-barrel politics to aid Conservative constituencies.
The scandal with Greensill is not that rules were broken but they did not exist. Yet ultimately it exposes how business has become so entwined with politics and the public sector.
I have revealed how fat cat private operators muscled in on mental health and social care provision with disastrous results. Among the worst offenders is Cygnet, owned by the biggest US healthcare operator, which has such an abysmal record it was condemned by the watchdog for “systemic failure”. Lo and behold, it has suddenly recruited well-connected “advisers” such as Lord Patel, chair of the social work regulator, and Clare Gerada, a former head of GPs turned chair of a key NHS advisory body who declined to tell me how much she was being paid.
I have no problem with private and public sectors working together and learning from each other. But companies exist to make profits. And the corporate world is filled with far smarter people than Westminster who run rings around attempts to restrain their activities. Ask yourself, for example, why nothing gets done about such a glaring problem as tax avoidance? Instead, firms making a fortune from showing clients how to slash tax bills have spread tentacles deep into Whitehall as highly paid consultants.
There are, sadly, few modern politicians with Carter’s integrity. So we need total transparency over every call, every deal, every dinner, every meeting, every payment to end this deception of taxpayers and distortion of politics.