Sean O’Neill in THE TIMES, 3 August 2021
To the litany of words used to describe questionable conduct in the upper echelons of public life we must now add “access capitalism”. This is the phrase used by the hitherto little-known telecoms millionaire Mohamed Amersi to describe his ability to leverage his wealth (with the assistance of the Conservative Party chairman Ben Elliot) to wine and dine with the prime minister and the Prince of Wales.
Amersi’s description came hot on the heels of a report describing how the disgraced financier Lex Greensill had had “extraordinarily privileged” access to Whitehall’s top tables when David Cameron was prime minister. Cameron later got a lucrative job lobbying for Greensill. It also follows the use of “chumocracy” to sum up how friends, relatives and occasional drinking pals of MPs and ministers were able to secure lucrative contracts to supply PPE during the pandemic via a VIP lane that bypassed normal procurement rules.
Chumocracy is, of course, a close relative of “cronyism”, which became fashionable in the New Labour years as a shorthand for packing public sector jobs, quango boards and red leather benches with “Tony’s cronies”.
That led, eventually, to a controversial and ultimately fruitless Scotland Yard investigation that was labelled the “cash for honours” inquiry (not to be confused with “cash for questions”) in which leading politicians were subjected to police questioning. Much talk of reform of the honours system followed but little has changed. Johnson has rewarded lots of Tory donors with seats in the Lords.
Outrage and anger follow these revelations but rarely does anyone use the C-word. Instead of saying in plain English that these are allegations of corruption, we resort to clever-clever phrases and knowing descriptions best uttered while nodding and winking.
We’re not quite so shy when talking about what goes on in other countries. Dominic Raab recently imposed asset freezes and travel bans on public figures from Venezuela, Zimbabwe, Equatorial Guinea and Iraq and pledged to fight “the blight of corruption and hold those responsible for its corrosive effect to account”.
It’s time Raab and his colleagues took a long, hard look at what is happening at home. The easy access to power granted to those with the fattest wallets is having a corrosive effect on trust in government and public life here.
Reform of our opaque systems of honours, appointments and political donations is urgently needed before a worsening integrity problem becomes a full-blown corruption crisis. (Sean O’Neill is senior writer at THE TIMES)