openDemocracyUK: Opinion

If Tory whips are blackmailing MPs, that’s corruption. We should call it that

Senior Conservative William Wragg accused whips of threatening to withdraw funds from the constituencies of MPs who vote against Boris Johnson

Liz David-Barrett
21 January 2022, 12.04pm
Boris Johnson’s whips are allegedly blackmailing Tory MPs
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Daniel Leal-Olivas/Reuters/Alamy

In Britain, we don’t like to use the word ‘corruption’ unless we’re talking about other countries.

But when senior backbench Tory MP William Wragg claimed in Parliament yesterday that Boris Johnson’s team had been threatening and blackmailing his colleagues into supporting the PM, corruption is what he was describing.

Conservative whips warned MPs that their constituencies would lose government funds if they were “disloyal” to Johnson, said Wragg, the vice-chair of the Conservatives’ 1922 Committee. Johnson claims he has “seen no evidence” that this is happening. If true, though, it would mean taxpayers’ money is being used for partisan gain.

Johnson himself said in November that “the UK is not remotely a corrupt country”. But corruption means the abuse of entrusted power for private gain.

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In this case, the public has – through competitive elections – entrusted Johnson and his team with power over public policy, including the power to allocate state funds. The government’s decisions about how to distribute those funds are supposed to be driven by the public interest. If it instead assigns and withholds money in ways designed to reward loyalty and punish disloyalty, it is abusing that power. If the motivation is to keep Johnson – and his colleagues – in power, the government’s intention is to secure private gain.

That looks like corruption to me. In fact, seen in the context of the past two years of the Johnson administration, it looks like a specific type of corruption – state capture.

State capture is a type of corruption where narrow interest groups take control of the institutions and processes of public policy, excluding other parts of the public whose interests those institutions are supposed to serve. For example, abusing your control of public funds by allocating them to political allies instead of to the wider public. Wragg’s allegations look like one example of this, while setting up a VIP lane to channel government COVID contracts to cronies is another.

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Johnson and his allies systematically seek to shut down scrutiny or smear those they see as disloyal. When judges ruled against his government, his supporters in the press called them “enemies of the people”, while his administration has mounted an ongoing campaign to undermine the judiciary’s power to scrutinise government. Journalists who have criticised Johnson have been excluded from press conferences, and public service broadcasting punished with funding cuts. Meanwhile, the Policing Bill threatens to undermine the civil right to protest, a foundation stone of democracy, and the Elections Bill introduces unnecessary and dangerous barriers to people’s ability to exercise their right to vote and potentially to oust a government from office.

State capture is a particularly bad form of corruption because it changes the rules of the game. Even if Johnson resigns today, we are left with a different Britain – one in which it’s harder to gather the information needed to hold government to account and harder to challenge those in power.

Other countries around the world have slid into state capture without anyone being able to stop it. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán so comprehensively undermined the checks on his power that it has become near-impossible to hold him to account for any individual policy, let alone to change the government. In Turkey under Erdogan, it’s a similar situation. Critics of the regime don’t just have funds withdrawn, they get locked up. And all the time a narrow elite is able to abuse its access to the state to siphon off funds in the form of subsidies and contracts, or by changing the rules to create monopolies for themselves. State capture in these countries has meant that public money is used to benefit only a tiny minority.

South Africa also slid into state capture under former president Zuma, but it is remarkable for having halted it in its tracks. The capture juggernaut was stopped by individuals who were prepared to stand up for the country’s democratic principles. South Africa has even embarked on a huge effort to understand and learn from what went wrong via the Zondo Commission, taking evidence from 300 witnesses who testified at public hearings. (Now that’s a serious inquiry.)

What to do

So, what can be done in the UK? In the medium term, a package of reforms like those recommended recently by the Committee on Standards in Public Life – including more independence in the regulation of the ministerial code and transparency around lobbying – would help to reduce conflicts of interest and enhance the power of regulators. But with state capture, you can’t simply rely on legal reforms because those in power can use it to weaken or block the legislative process.

To bring about long-term, meaningful change, those with power need to use it to defend Britain’s institutions. MPs on the government benches need to speak up when they see their own colleagues engaging in practices aimed at squashing scrutiny or consolidating power. Wragg’s decision to call out unacceptable practices is a welcome sign of leadership, of putting principles before partisanship.

But do any of those seeking to replace Johnson care about the course the country is on? The mantra that Britain is somehow immune to corruption is false. It’s not. No country is.

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