So the messy saga of the Australian venture capitalist Lex Greensill’s cosy relationship with the Cameron government and Cabinet Office leaves a sticky residue for the Government today…Not having “broken the rules” is not the same as a clean bill of health. If rules do not forbid such moves after a relatively short time out of high office, common sense should…
Voters may not make as much of a distinction as Johnson’s aides have assumed in between the revolving door of the Cameron-Greensill era and the extraordinary combination of roles accorded to, say, Sir Edward Lister, Johnson’s key ally and business fixer at City Hall. Lister, dubbed “the only man who can organise Boris” by a mutual friend, was in No10 until earlier this year and acted as commercial adviser over the new site of the Chinese embassy while leading talks on the deal for the Government.
This is doubtless within the rules too (which suggests they need an overhaul). While government should benefit from the expertise of business, some of these arrangements are suspiciously close to The Mikado’s parody, in which Poo-Bah is “Lord high admiral, master of the buckhounds, groom of the back stairs, archbishop of Titipu, and lord mayor, both acting and elect”.
For good measure, Lister has now been appointed as “special envoy” to the Middle East which sounds like a trade mission in light disguise to me. Government does need the fresh blood and drive that innovation business and technology companies can bring to the table. But probity demands that they answer awkward questions when personal, political and financial interests merge. So while I have never had much interest in whether Johnson was reckless enough to have an affair with Jennifer Arcuri, the reason the saga does not go away is that she did benefit from City Hall favours while in a personal relationship with the then mayor.
These days, he has a more settled love interest beside him at No10. But here we go again — with a tale of expensive refurbishment and donors tapped to help pay for it, then paying money back or re-routing it on muddy terms. The Tory party chairman Ben Elliot is said to have approved help to pay Boris’ legal bills in the ensuing row. Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick waved through a property development headed by media tycoon Richard Desmond after the two had sat next to each other at a fundraising dinner. A court ruled against the Heath Secretary’s handling of PPE contracts. Collectively these stories are corrosive…
The best way to stop the whiff of cronyism from ballooning into a crisis of trust is for leaders and their teams to conduct an unsparing health check on their favouritisms and looser practices.
Anne McElvoy is Senior Editor at The Economist