Irrespective of political affiliation commentators see Partygate as a ‘breakthrough’ moment. The word has taken on a particular meaning: that moment when political events causes a seismic reaction from the public instead of being absorbed or dismissed as only to be expected of politicians. The Westminster bubble has burst sending a toxic spray over people who don’t normally follow politics closely.
A ‘political breakthrough’ departs from the despairing refrain ‘all politicians are the same’. Focussed attention is given to a particular group of politicians and their Party and refuses to go away. And the nation’s moral compass – followed by the opinion polls - suddenly starts swinging.
But why Partygate not any other scandal? After all the message from Government is that what went on in the premises of 10 and 11 Downing Street was - implicitly ( a new load-bearing adverb) - just a few tired office workers sharing refreshments with a kindly boss. A mistake, of course, given what was required of everyone else in the country, but we all make mistakes, don’t we? Well, no. Not mistakes with such resonances and consequences.
Most people’s mistakes don’t indicate cavalier disrespect, contempt for the feelings, sacrifices and suffering of thousands of their fellow citizens, their grief, confinement and compliance with rules meant to reduce the spread of a potentially lethal virus. Partygate upset and angered the public because it went against the most primal ethical principle, one held even by young children: fairness. The people imposing rules were flagrantly breaking them. One rule for them and another for us.
We live in an age of potent images. Besides being unfair Partygate was lavishly illustrated. We all saw Allegra Stratton laughing. The video from Downing Street’s newsroom showed the joy of entitlement, a celebration of in-group cleverness easily seen as us being laughed at by them, the ones who didn’t keep the rules. Similarly the picture of a solitary, mourning Queen evoked the shared griefs and losses of a nation persevering through the pandemic whilst a supercilious political elite partied. A single image can sum up a huge story just as an icon expresses a religious culture. The breakthrough was the public becoming painfully aware of a rotten political culture. And the one Chinese proverb we all know is “a fish rots from the head”.
Evidence of that political culture has become increasingly abundant over the last few years. But only now do the public seem to be becoming aware of the administrative incompetence it fosters. We have the resignation of Lord Agnew of Oulton, Minister of State for Efficiency and Transformation to thank for highlighting by his resignation the £5.8 billion of tax-payers’ money written off owing to fraudulent applications for COVID loans made under the Treasury’s Bounce Back Scheme. Add on furlough fraud and error and the sum lost is £10 billion. Agnew explained that the lack of control which let the fraudsters get away with it was “a combination of arrogance, indolence and ignorance”. Almost nobody bounced back from their fraudulent applications into jail.
Private Eye called the Profiteering from procurement of protective equipment, PPE, presided over by government the “COVID Klondike”. It’s a story, less accessible, less easy to illustrate, often complex in detail. With only cartoons as visual aids, Private Eye, described government procurement as more like “a ruse that Dad’s Army spiv Private Walker might have run’. Existing safeguards to avoid conflict of interests were not properly followed, what due diligence there was on suppliers was cursory and transparency rules were ignored. When in 2021 the Good Law Project took the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care 2018-2021, Matt Hancock, to court for failure to disclose contracts within 30 days as required by law, this practice was declared unlawful. That’s not going to dominate conversation in the pub.
Nor did the 2020 PPE procurement through special VIPs’ and MPs’ channels in the foggy hinterland between suspected corruption, sleaze, and government expediency - like the porous border between tax avoidance and tax evasion – fully seize the public’s attention. Private Eye’s Special Report “Profits of Doom” (Issue 1560 of November 2021) digs out the carefully buried, massive windfall profits and bonuses of companies that won government COVID-related contracts along with the commissions of middle-men. For one investment company’s PPE contract a total of £64 million was paid to three men in commissions for brokering the £252 million deals for masks. For the ineffectual Track and Trace system Deloitte consultants charged on average £1,000 a day to plan the roll-out.
Transparency was not accidently ignored, the recipients of many contracts strove to keep their profits hidden from scrutiny. For example, of the 47 PPE suppliers awarded contracts through the government’s high priority channels up to December 2021, investigated by Private Eye, 18 were referred by Tory MPs and in only 7 was “a meaningful assessment made of the company’s returns on its contracts”. One trick was to start a small new company which would therefore not show an income statement making it impossible for an outsider to calculate profits. In other cases, the owners, often overseas, included several Russian-doll companies, barely traceable to the people who actually supplied the goods. The prodigious waste of taxpayer money continued into procurement for Track and Trace extending into tens of billions, in the words of Private Eye “one of the greatest wastes of public money…in modern British history”.
The public recognised the heroic sacrifices of front-line medical staff in hospitals. Government cleverly encouraged the weekly public applause for NHS staff. We knew the low salaries of essential workers like bus drivers who gave their lives. The profiteers laughed all the way to the bank. They knew how to hide their profits. Their financial advisers brought years of practice in the art of concealment. But there were none of the pictures which aroused public indignation in Partygate, no leaked photographs of corruption and profiteering, no evidence which touched the public nerve, nothing they felt they could verify for themselves.
Incompetence is joining sleaze and Partygate as a major concern amongst voters and destroying the Conservatives claim to be the Party of economic competence. A Government which came to power on the slogan ‘take back control’ couldn’t keep control over the spending of tax-payer’s money and stop fraud and profiteering. And couldn’t stop holding parties.
See TheArticle 28/01/2022