How the UK Became a Chumocracy

Photograph Source: Keith Hall – CC BY 2.0

Boris “BoJo” Johnson survived his bout with Covid-19 after spending time in intensive-care a few months ago.

BoJo’s survival notwithstanding, he’s now having to self-isolate—again– as a result of meeting with a group of Tory MPs, many casual about social distancing and mask-wearing, who subsequently tested positive for the virus.

BoJo’s self-isolation came at a convenient time for him.

He had just sacked his chief adviser and handler, Dominic Cummings, who was thought by many to be the de facto prime minister. Also sacked was Cummings’ side kick, Lee Cain, who was Downing Street’s director of communications.

This Ruritanian ruckus was the outcome of a classic piece of bureaucratic infighting.

BoJo’s constant mixed messaging and U-turns over the pandemic led to the appointment of a White House-style press secretary, Allegra Stratton (a friend of BoJo’s concubine Carrie Symonds), in the hope that Stratton could somehow improve Downing Street’s slapdash PR.

However, what ensued was a turf war between Lee Cain and Stratton, with Cummings siding with his director of communications against the upstart Stratton. Cain was said to reduce Stratton to tears.

Carrie Symonds, given the nickname “Lady Nut Nuts” by Cummings & Co, is reported to have intervened on behalf of her friend with her prime ministerial paramour, and BoJo responded by giving Cain the boot. While this was going on, Cummings briefed against Lady Nut Nuts, prompting BoJo to give Cummings his termination slip.

All this is mildly entertaining, but a more serious question remains.

BoJo is said to be congenitally undisciplined, erratic, and slothful by those who know him, and needs to have a manager of sorts to keep him somewhat on track. Cummings had this function, but he is gone.

So how, and by whom, will BoJo be managed when he comes out of quarantine?

The departure of the not-much-missed Cummings was said by Tory politicians and the Tory-supporting press to give BoJo a chance to do a “reset” after months of incoherent policy-making and drift.

But any chance of a “reset” was soon scuppered.

The Home Secretary/interior minister, Priti Patel, was found by an official inquiry to have breached the ministerial code by bullying civil servants in the 3 ministries she has served in (the other 2 being International Development and Work and Pensions).

The civil servants involved were subjected to profanity-laden bouts of screaming by Patel, who is known in some social media circles as “Priti Shitty”.

Patel is no stranger to malfeasance.

In August 2017, while at International Development, Patel held meetings in Israel without informing the Foreign Office. The meetings, up to a dozen in number, were said by Patel to have occurred when she was on a “private holiday”. The BBC reported that “According to one source, at least one of the meetings was held at the suggestion of the Israeli ambassador to London. In contrast, British diplomats in Israel were not informed about Ms Patel’s plans”.

Following her “holiday” meetings in Israel, Patel recommended that her department give international aid money to field hospitals run by the Israeli army in the illegally-occupied Golan Heights.

Patel had 2 more undisclosed meetings with Israeli officials in London and New York in September 2017. Her activities on behalf of the Israeli government were deemed in legal circles to be a conflict of interest, and thus a breach of the ministerial code.

Shortly after her appointment as Home Secretary in May 2019, Patel became an adviser to the US military tech supplier ViaSat on a salary of £5,000/$6,637 a month for 5 hours’ work a month, without seeking approval from the government’s Advisory Committee on Business Appointments. This led critics to say she had broken the ministerial code for a second time.

So, with the recent bullying charges Patel was now on the verge of 3 breaches of the ministerial code, but BoJo, having sat since April on the report detailing and weighing-up these charges against Patel, declared last week that she had not breached the ministerial code!

Day is night, and night is day, for this “shape-shifting creep” (the words used by a former official in the Obama administration to describe the prime minister).

BoJo’s adviser on ministerial standards, Sir Alex Allan, whose responsibility was to inform him that Patel’s recent behaviour breached the ministerial code, promptly resigned.

Patel is also notorious for issuing fatuous non-apologies in the past, taking the form of “I’m sorry if you were offended by what I did, and that I hurt your feelings, because that was not my intention”.

Sure enough, the screamed-at civil servants in the Home Office received one of her phony expressions of regret.

Patel, found guilty of yelling obscenities at civil servants in 3 different ministries, got away with it because she convinced BoJo (or maybe he convinced himself) that her behaviour was somehow “not intentional”.

Someone should try that excuse the next time they are accused of bullying at their workplace, and see what response comes their way. They had better beseech their gods for a boss like the “shape-shifting creep”.

Patel should of course have been sacked a long time ago, but now gets off with a feeble “written warning”.

Perhaps it can’t be ruled out—absolutely– that being a close ally of BoJo’s may one day allow a minister to remain in his cabinet despite being found guilty of attempting to run over a civil servant with their car?

Meanwhile, a damning report by the UK’s National Audit Office (NAO) concluded that “standards of transparency and documentation were not consistently met”, as the government handed out £18bn/$24bn in Covid-related contracts to suppliers by the end of July.

The NAO shows that a “VIP lane” to dole out contracts was created for potential suppliers who had been recommended by cabinet ministers and Tory MPs.

Mountains of cash were handed to companies with no demonstrable competence in the manufacture and supply of what they were contracted to provide.

One such company, the pest exterminator Pestfix, was erroneously added to the “VIP lane”, but not before it received £350mn/$467mn worth of contracts. Part of the Pestfix deal included a consignment of 600,000 masks that did not meet the government’s own PPE stipulations.

A £253mn/$336mn deal with Ayanda Capital was brokered by an adviser to the government’s Board of Trade, with £155mn/$206mn spent on 50 million masks which had to be discarded because they did not meet the required standards.

The NAO stated that there had been “inadequate documentation” involving potential conflicts of interest and a lack of record-keeping within the “VIP lane”.

Firms in the VIP lane were 10 times more likely to awarded contracts than suppliers who submitted bids through the normal process.

Of 493 referrals submitted for inclusion in the high priority lane, only 250 sources were recorded, most of them coming from the private offices of ministers and a large number directly from Tory MPs.

The NAO also found that a company owned by individuals who “previously advised or worked with” the cabinet minister Michael Gove were given a contract, as well as an outfit in which a minister had previously owned £90,000/$119,500 worth of shares.

Almost £50mn/$66mn was given to one individual who acted as a middleman for a jeweller in Florida called Michael Saiger whom the government selected to deliver £250mn/$332mn worth of PPE.

The Good Law Project, headed by the senior lawyer Jolyon Maugham, has initiated legal proceedings against the government for these egregious acts of cronyism and nepotism which have turned Ukania into a “chumocracy”.

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.