“SLEAZE” is a slippery word. In politics, it’s used when it’s hard to produce the evidence that justifies the word “corruption”. But it covers much the same area: the abuse of public power for private gain or factional self-interest rather than for the common good. There is a lot of it about.
The departure of Owen Paterson from the House of Commons has thrown a spotlight on to the questionable business of MPs’ taking part-time jobs as consultants to lobby on behalf of private companies. But there is more to it than that. This week, we learned that, if you give £3 million to the Conservative Party, you are pretty much guaranteed a place in the House of Lords.
All this comes on top of the awarding of millions of pounds of public money in “crony contracts” to friends of ministers during the Covid crisis. Then, there are the scandals about the refurbishment of Boris Johnson’s flat and his recent holiday in Spain. Not to mention the £50-million tax bill which a Tory donor was saved by the recently departed Housing minister, Robert Jenrick — or the £3.3 million David Cameron made from the collapsed finance company Greensill.
What is striking politically is that it is not just the Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer who has called the Prime Minister “corrupt and contemptible”. The former Tory PM, Sir John Major, also last week described this Government as “politically corrupt”. And the Conservative Chair of the Defence Select Committee, Tobias Ellwood, said of his own party: “We have lost our way and we need to find our moral compass and get back to what the British people want us to do — good policy, good governance, leadership, statecraft.”
Can all this be fixed by changing the rules? It would, I suppose, be possible to declare that honours cannot be given to anyone who has donated more than, say, £5000 to a political party. But a quarter of the Tory MPs who voted not to sanction Mr Paterson turn out to have second jobs themselves. It hardly seems feasible to have a rule requiring MPs with such a conflict of interest not to vote in such matters. But we might expect them to have the decency to recuse themselves from such a vote. Instead, we have seen the House of Commons at its worst.
Sleaze, as Aristotle might have said, is about character rather than morality. Virtue is formed by the habitual development of decent behaviour. That is how a moral compass is set — something that many members of the current government seem never to have developed. Either that, or they are too weak to exercise it.
One government minister, Kwasi Kwarteng, even suggested — in a piece of public bullying which must surely be a breach of the ministerial code — that it was the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner, Kathryn Stone, who should be resigning. And government whips reportedly coerced Tory backbenchers into supporting Mr Paterson with the threat that those who did not could expect their constituencies to lose levelling-up funding for schools and hospitals.
Mr Johnson continues to shrug off all this demonstrable lack of integrity. He should remember that it is sleaze and incompetence that, historically, have ousted Conservatives from office.