Revisited: Is Britain ‘Politically Corrupt’?

By: Robert Barrington

Journalists often ask, as they asked at the time, whether the Johnson government was corrupt. My response at the time was that ‘there was more corruption and corruption risk in and around this government than any British government since 1945.’ My political science colleagues somewhat balked at this – how could such a statement be measured or substantiated? Historians tended to agree – the sheer volume of allegations and scandals was unprecedented. Practitioners, especially those with long political memories, were in no doubt: there was something different, and worse, about the Johnson government.

But my statement was deliberately a bit fudged – it did not distinguish between ‘corruption’ and ‘corruption risk’ and spoke of these being both ‘in’ and ‘around’ the government. Part of my argument was that we would only know some while after the event whether the corruption risk had turned into corruption.

What do we know now, a year after Johnson left office? To frame this, I am using the definition developed by the Centre for the Study of Corruption, building on the long-established definition by Transparency International of corruption:

‘the abuse of entrusted power for private gain; it harms the public interest and typically breaches laws, regulations and/or integrity standards.’

I will not at this stage attempt a judgement about whether the Johnson government was characterised by systemic corruption – that will need to wait until more evidence is available. But one of the steps on that journey is to discern whether specific allegations or corruption risks can now be reasonably described as corruption. We can describe these as cases of transactional corruption to indicate that they are one-off incidents, which may or may not prove to be part of a systemic pattern.

The many Johnson administration scandals are well documented – for example here and here. They can be loosely categorised into four types:

Breaches of standards within the wider government and party, which Johnson permitted, defended or supported. Examples: the Priti Patel bullying; the several backbench sex scandals; Barnard Castle; appointment of party donors to the Lords and public appointments of cronies, known as ‘chumocracy.’

Personal breaches of standards by Johnson. Examples: Partygate; lying to the Commons; undermining the Privileges Committee; wallpaper-gate; the Caribbean holiday; accepting employment without consulting ACOBA.

Potentially corrupt activity within the wider government and party, which Johnson permitted, defended or supported. Examples: the Jenrick-Westferry affair; the Towns Fund; Owen Paterson’s lobbying; PPE procurement and the ‘VIP lane.’ 

Potentially corrupt activity by Johnson personally. Example: the Lebedev Lords appointment; the Richard Sharpe BBC appointment and related loan facility.

These categories blur into each other, and new information may move something from one category to another. But is there any actual, hard and fast corruption amongst this lot? Some of the most serious allegations will certainly take more time for facts to be proven and allegations to be substantiated. The most prominent example of this is PPE procurement, and notably the case of Michelle Mone.

On the evidence available, I think we can say with a fair degree of certainty that there are two cases related to Johnson that clearly fall within the definition of corruption.

First, the Owen Paterson case. The entrusted power (as an MP) was abused (lobbying in breach of the rules) for private gain (Randox gained contracts, Paterson gained money for his services). This certainly falls within the definition of corruption. The support given to Paterson by his political chums in government, as they sought to change the rules so he would not be found to have breached them, demonstrates collusion by the government. That collusion may not in itself have been corrupt, but it adds to the picture of systemic corruption under the Johnson government.

Secondly, the Lebedev lordship. There was entrusted power (in Johnson as Prime Minister) that was abused (as recently discovered: over-ruling the advice of both the security services and the House of Lords Appointments Committee). But was there private gain? The occasional party in Italy seems too trivial to support the charge of corruption, just like the birthday cake in Partygate. They are of course symptomatic of wider issues, but we need not be distracted by arguing what size party is a private gain, because in the Lebedev case we also have the important fact that he owned two newspapers that were supportive of Johnson. We may hear more in due course about the extent of Lebedev’s generosity and hospitality, but we do already know that for a politician to have the support of major newspapers is an important private gain.

This leaves us with the unresolved question of whether breach upon breach of standards, even if those cases were not themselves instances of corruption, allied to those cases that can be labelled as corruption, constitute systemic corruption. The jury is still out: but as more evidence becomes available, and more individual cases move from the category of allegation to proven, the evidence is only pointing in one direction.

Robert Barrington.

Robert Barrington is Professor of Anti-Corruption Practice at the Centre for the Study of Corruption, University of Sussex.

The Constitution Society is committed to the promotion of informed debate and is politically impartial. Any views expressed in this article are the personal views of the author and not those of The Constitution Society.