Owen Paterson in 2017. Photo: Wikimedia/Chris McAndrew Owen Paterson in 2017. Photo: Wikimedia/Chris McAndrew

Lindsey German on the unfit-to-govern Conservatives and how we square up to them  

The events of the past week mark a turning point for Boris Johnson. He managed to put on full display the corruption, greed, contempt for democracy, authoritarian behaviour, and sheer nastiness of the Tories in one virtuoso 48-hour performance.

His decision to back an amendment which would have allowed Owen Paterson – one of his friends and a former minister – to escape the sanction of 30 days suspension from parliament was in itself a remarkable endorsement of inexcusable behaviour. Paterson was found to have lobbied ministers on behalf of two companies for which he was paid more than three times the average annual wage, on top of his extremely generous MP’s salary and expenses.

One of these companies, Randox, was awarded two Covid 19 testing contracts without having to go through the normal competition procedure. These contracts were worth £480 million.

Johnson didn’t just back the amendment however. He imposed a three-line whip on his MPs, allowed gratuitous attacks on the parliamentary commissioner for standards, flew back from Cop26 by plane the night before the debate to have dinner in the Garrick Club with right wing journalist Charles Moore, who is one of Paterson’s closest friends.  He and his ministers defended their decision to the hilt and voted for it in parliament.

It is a mark of the Tories’ arrogance that so few of them saw the backlash coming. In this they were helped by the usual supine media commentary which saw this as a ‘Westminster bubble’ issue and doubted that it would have ‘cut through’ – what they mean by this is that only people clever enough to be MPs or in the lobby would understand what was going on. 

How stupid do they think we are? Did they really not think people might notice the dodgy contracts, the vast amounts of money for lobbying, the faux democratic arguments used to save the skin of one of the Tories’ own? Apparently not. Yet it was clear immediately that MPs were receiving emails complaining about the corruption, as no doubt were media outlets.

By the following morning, the Daily Mail and other right-wing papers were laying into the government. Labour found at least half a voice to stand up to sleaze and will now run with this. Indeed, Starmer was Mr Angry by the weekend, accusing the government directly of corruption. Many Tory MPs were angry at having been forced to vote for the amendment which was so quickly abandoned. Cue rapid and cynical U-turn by Johnson which dumped Paterson, who then resigned as an MP.

Disastrous all round for Johnson. The Tories have put up with him because they see him as an election winner and the man who delivered Brexit and breached the ‘red wall’. But this episode has done huge damage to him. He has a big parliamentary majority and a very weak opposition but there are times when these turning points are decisive.

That happened to John Major in 1992, when a combination of ‘Black Wednesday’ where interest rates shot up, and the pit closures, which were highly unpopular, permanently damaged his government just after an election. His majority meant hanging on to the bitter end, but the result then was the Labour landslide of 1997.

We may be seeing Johnson’s Black Wednesday now. The immediate issue has not ended, with parliamentary debate over Randox and the contracts, growing discontent among Tory MPs, and – incredibly – the possibility that Paterson may be nominated for the House of Lords. Major launched a big attack on the whole episode which, given that his own government was mired in sleaze, shows how badly this is going down in the Tory ranks.

However, differences with the 1990s are stark. Trust and respect for politicians and the political process is much lower than it was then. The inequalities of society have worsened, and Britain is much more obviously a failed state now. There is far less support for Labour, although that can always change. Parliament’s corruption and sleaze is only the tip of an iceberg where globalisation and neoliberalism has led to it on a once unimaginable scale.

The sleaze is all around the system of governance – from buying peerages in the most blatant way to allowing planning rules which exclude the wishes of ordinary citizens and hand developers a fortune on a plate. The political system is broken, public services have been privatised to near death, and the forms of democracy open to us allow very few effective outcomes for public discontent.

Socialists should oppose the corruption which stems from the system but we must go beyond the limits of Labour. Starmer sees the actions of Johnson as individual rather than endemic and fears that they undermine the legitimacy of what is overall a corrupt system.  Back in the 18th century, the government was known as ‘Old Corruption’. Even in the 20th century, prime minister Lloyd George sold peerages. Under John Major there was the ‘cash for questions’ scandal in the 90s. And there have been repeated scandals over MPs’ expenses. Talk about Britain’s role as the ‘mother of parliaments’ conveniently hides the fact that the rich have always tried – and often succeeded – to buy democracy.

Revulsion at this corruption can be linked to protests and actions on other issues. The tremendous demonstrations in Glasgow and elsewhere at Cop26, or the better than expected (by me at least) votes for strike action by UCU members are just two examples of growing waves of anger at employers and government. Politicians rely on the nature of this system, on the acceptance of government spin by most of the media, and by the quite conscious ways in which working people are excluded from genuine debate, in order to maintain their rule.

Over recent decades there have been more people who do see beyond these screens to some of the reality behind them. However they often feel powerless to alter the way society is organised. That can change when we organise collectively to challenge the social and economic power of capital. This is already far more than just ‘a storm in a Westminster teacup’ as one Tory described it. 

The growing sense of discontent generally, the increase in industrial action, the changing nature of many people’s approach to working life as a result of the pandemic, all herald the need for wider change. If we are to take advantage of this crisis at the top of government, we need to extend and deepen the struggles already going on.

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Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.