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LABOUR is right to call out Conservative Party co-chair Ben Elliot over his company’s private Covid test business, even if targeting Tory corruption can seem like a game of whack-a-mole.
From Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick’s dinners with property developer and former newspaper magnate Richard Desmond to disgraced health secretary Matt Hancock’s shares in a company belonging to his sister that won NHS contracts, there is plenty of evidence that money buys favours in British politics and that many if not most politicians are on the make.
A new inquiry by the Commons standards committee is considering conflicts of interest on the part of MPs sitting on all-party parliamentary groups who are also paid by the industries they look at — former betting and gaming APPG chair Laurence Robertson, the MP for Tewkesbury, pockets a tidy £2,000 a month (more than the median UK wage) on top of his MP’s salary as the parliamentary adviser to the Betting and Gaming Council, while Mark Garnier, vice-chair of the APPG for space, draws £2,500 a month for chairing the Shetland Space Centre’s advisory board.
But it seems hard to imagine that Westminster will do much of a job at holding itself to account following the government’s appointment of one of Boris Johnson’s Bullingdon Club cronies, Ewen Fergusson, to sit on the Committee on Standards In Public Life tasked with scrutinising his own conduct and that of other ministers.
The corruption of British politics has long been taken for granted. It extends way beyond the Conservative Party, as the expenses scandal demonstrated, and way beyond Westminster, with local government in many parts of the country just as biddable by those with deep pockets.
It extends way beyond mere profiteering, too: the role of consultants McKinsey, whose clients included private health companies, in drafting the 2012 Health and Social Care Act showed the extent to which the very laws of the land are outsourced to corporate interests.
So deep is the rot that the usual liberal remedies – new watchdogs or codes of conduct — will not even begin to cut it out.
So Labour chair Anneliese Dodds’s inquiry as to what action will be taken against Elliot — whose company Quintessentially was exposed by the Times as having arranged for its clients to get access to Covid-19 tests in April 2020, amid a national shortage when even care homes were unable to access tests for their staff or residents — has a slightly surreal air.
She is not wrong, though, to press Elliot’s case. Granting privileged access to Covid tests to commercial clients at the height of the pandemic is the sort of despicable profiteering that has shattered the government’s “all in it together” myth.
It is more than a year since ministers clapped for carers and Johnson hit record approval ratings as he was hospitalised with Covid himself, a circumstance used to promote the illusion of a government leading a united country in the titanic struggle against the virus.
Handing health contracts to cronies, repeatedly breaching their own rules and refusing to follow up their praise for “key workers” with action to address chronic low pay and job insecurity have broken that spell.
Anger at the parade of corporate chancers who have made millions from a virus that has killed 155,000 people in this country can be used to build a more genuine sense of unity, a unity of the working-class majority against the crooks who govern us — a unity, as Labour phrased it in recent years, of the many not the few.
Labour is right to decry corruption at the top, but unless it can recover its commitment to overhauling a system rotten to the core — a system its current leadership seems determined to uphold at all costs — it risks being seen as part of the problem.
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