Thrusting Boris, “The UK is Not Remotely a Corrupt Country”

Photograph Source: Chatham House – CC BY 2.0

“I genuinely believe that the UK is not remotely a corrupt country, nor do I believe that our institutions are corrupt”.

– Boris Johnson, Glasgow, November 10th, 2021

“How can I be the thrust – the throttle – your mere footstep as you make your career? Tell me: how I can help you?”.

– Boris Johnson, remark to his ex-mistress Jennifer Arcuri recounted in her diary

The UK has been roiling in a crisis over Conservative party corruption and sleaze for the past 2 weeks. This is on top of the rampant corruption that undermined the UK’s Covid-19 procurement system.

The first currently visible sign of this crisis emerged with the so-called Paterson affair. The House of Commons Committee on Standards, consisting of cross-party MPs and members of the public, upheld findings by the independent Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards of the House of Commons that the former Tory minister Owen Paterson, by lobbying ministers as a paid consultant for 2 private companies, had been in deliberate breach of the rules prohibiting MPs from using their elected office for financial gain.

The Committee on Standards recommended that the Commons vote to impose a 30-day suspension on the always unrepentant Paterson. At this point the government intervened in what should have been a free vote to require Tory MPs to vote to overturn the Committee’s recommendation on Paterson and back an amendment to “reform” MP’s standards by creating a new Standards Committee with a built-in Tory majority. There were reports of threats to Tory MPs that they would lose funding for their constituencies if they failed to support the government.

In the face of a huge public outcry that included some of his own MPs, Boris “BoJo” Johnson made a U-turn on this proposal within 24 hours. Faced with the sudden withdrawal of support from BoJo, Paterson, realizing he was now being hung out to dry, chose to resign as an MP.

The commentariat has suggested that BoJo’s attempt to rescue Paterson’s career was self-serving– the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Kathryn Stone, has investigated BoJo more than any other MP in the last 3 years, and she has not yet finished with him.

The Electoral Commission is investigating the costs incurred in refurbishing BoJo’s Downing Street apartment, said to be paid for by a Tory donor in circumstances that remain unclear. The Commission says there are “reasonable grounds” to believe offences may have been committed in this costly renovation, and once this investigation is completed, BoJo could face his 4th encounter with Stone. The suggestion here is that BoJo, under the guise of rescuing Paterson, may have been nobbling Stone in advance of her investigation into his Downing Street renovation.

Paterson’s brazen lobbying prompted fresh media scrutiny of double jobbing among MPs.

The register of MPs’ interests shows that more than 90 out of 360 Conservative MPs have extra jobs on top of their parliamentary duties, compared with 3 from Labour. The double jobbing MPs are generally older than their parliamentary counterparts, and 86% are men. The highest earners were all former cabinet ministers. Obviously, those looking to hire a Tory MP knew which ones would provide “bang for buck” — why hire a novice MP when former cabinet ministers, backed-up by their well-established social and political networks, are up for sale?

Quick on the heels of the Paterson affair came revelations that Geoffrey Cox, the Attorney-General under BoJo’s predecessor Theresa May, spent most of the last lockdown phoning in his proxy votes to parliament from the British Virgin Islands (BVI), a notorious tax haven. Cox, a sitting MP, was being paid a huge sum by allegedly corrupt BVI government officials to ward-off the UK’s investigation into the island’s possibly illegal recourse to tax-dodging loopholes. Records show that Cox skipped at least 12 parliamentary votes on days when he was doing paid work in the BVI.

The Guardian reports that Cox’s earnings in second jobs since becoming a Conservative MP in 2005 have amounted to at least £6m/$8.1m.

The Tories have also put peerages up for sale– donors who pay £3m/$4.1m get seats in House of Lords. To quote The Scotsman:

… an investigation by The Sunday Times and Open Democracy found that nine of the party’s former treasurers have been elevated to the House of Lords since the Conservatives returned to power in 2010, having each donated more than £3 million to the party.

The report also said that in the past 11 years, 22 of the party’s main financial donors have been given peerages after donating a combined £54 million.

If someone has a fortune of £100 million (say), parting with £3m to become Lord X or Y in a forelock-tugging country like Ukania may be considered a reasonable investment by this individual. For one thing, the lord in question could probably show up at 3-star Michelin restaurant in London without a reservation and be ushered to a table immediately— such perks matter to some people.

Ten doctors and two nurses are sitting MPs, and several continue their medical work, not so much for the money but because they need to keep their licenses and registrations up-to-date for the time when they will no longer be in office (which could be as early as the next election). This of course is a very different proposition from the money-spinning hustling engaged in by Paterson and Cox.

It also transpired that 17 landlord MPs – 15 Conservatives and two Labour – have put their housing costs on expenses while earning more than £10,000/$13,400 a year each renting out their own London properties in recent years.  Over the past 5 years, these MPs have claimed over £1.3m in taxpayer-funded rent. Not surprisingly the egregious Geoffrey Cox is among these expenses-scamming MPs. Astonishingly this scam is not against the rules.

BoJo said at the Cop26 conference that MPs who break rules regarding conduct “should be punished”. The timing of this statement was perhaps unfortunate, because BoJo’s former mistress when he was mayor of London, the American businesswoman Jennifer Arcuri, allowed the Observer newspaper to publish extracts from her diaries last Sunday.

The priapic BoJo showered Arcuri with £126,000/$169,000 of public funds in the form of subventions for her technology business and event sponsorship. Arcuri was also taken on foreign trade missions led by Johnson, even though she did not meet the criteria for doing so. This much is public knowledge, but the published diary entries cast doubt on BoJo’s claim that he followed all the legal requirements in the mayoral code of conduct applicable at the time.

A diary entry from November 2012 alleges that BoJo told Arcuri: “You are going to get me in so much trouble”.  She also claims that BoJo acknowledged he was aware of a conflict of interest when she asked him to “validate” her business in public.

A diary entry from February 2013 states that BoJo boasted to her how he’d rejected the advice of his staff not to attend an event promoting Arcuri’s company. The entry says: “I just want you to know they came to me and I crushed them. They said: ‘You can’t do this Innotech in April’. I said: ‘Yes, I can, I’ll be there’. I only want to do this to make you happy. How I do wish to make you satisfied”.

The fresh allegations made by Arcuri in her diary could provide the Greater London Authority (GLA) oversight committee, currently investigating allegations of conflict of interest during Johnson’s time as mayor, with “new significant evidence” into the relationship between Arcuri and BoJo. A GLA spokesperson has confirmed that its monitoring officer will now consider this evidence.

The IOPC [Independent Office for Police Conduct] investigated BoJo

last year and said no further investigation was warranted into whether he abused his position as mayor to “benefit and reward” Arcuri. At the same time the IOPC found his failure to declare the conflict of interest may have breached the GLA 2012 code of conduct.

Arcuri’s handwritten diary entries were not then available to the IOPC investigators. The IOPC will open a new investigation into whether BoJo is guilty of criminal misconduct if it receives a referral from the GLA monitoring officer.

BoJo is providing abundant proof that Silvio Berlusconi (he of the bunga bunga parties) was not a one-off among European leaders in being able to combine an inordinate sexual appetite with a gourmand’s taste for corruption.

The opinion polls reacted as the disclosures of Tory corruption became public. For the first time in nearly a year, the Tories have fallen behind Labour in a number of polls.

For now, BoJo faces a dilemma: given the scale of corrupt moonlighting by his MPs, he has to be seen to curb this. At the same time, the numerous Tory MPs who are well-rewarded as a result of double-jobbing will not be happy at any attempt to curtail their profitable sidelines.

All his political life BoJo has traded on a well-crafted celebrity while being a shallow PR huckster (though always careful to surround himself with hand-picked sycophants to do his work for him). As long as he persuaded voters in sufficient numbers, he got away with his act. But what next?

While BoJo is bruised at the moment, he sits on an 80-seat parliamentary majority, and few of his MPs, no matter how disgruntled, will want to rock the boat on that— their political fortunes continue to be hitched to Ukania’s Berlusconi, and BoJo remains safe for now.

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