Trump sank lower, but that doesn't mean Johnson isn't knee-deep in sleaze

Jonathan Freedland

A damning report makes clear how complacent we’ve been: under cover of Covid, taxpayers’ money has been abused

British army personnel at Plymouth Covid testing facility in April.
British army personnel at Plymouth Covid testing facility in April. Photograph: Uk Ministry Of Defence/Reuters
British army personnel at Plymouth Covid testing facility in April. Photograph: Uk Ministry Of Defence/Reuters

Last modified on Fri 20 Nov 2020 21.57 GMT

The gradual, reluctant departure of Donald Trump removes a man who performed a vital function for the UK government. He served as a lightning rod and handy distraction, diverting attention away from our own rulers by reliably being more appalling, more outrageous and more incompetent than they could ever manage. However low they sank, they could always point across the Atlantic to someone who had sunk lower. Trump absorbed a lot of emotional energy that way, soaking up fury that might otherwise have been directed closer to home. But now that his slow retreat from the centre of global consciousness is under way, his utility as a decoy is diminishing. Once Trump is no longer gobbling up all the attention, our gaze can settle more steadily on our own masters. And it is not a pretty sight.

For even though Boris Johnson never told anyone to inject bleach, his government’s handling of the pandemic has been disastrously bad by any measure except direct comparison with Trump’s. Whether it’s the late decision-making, including a delay to the first lockdown that is estimated to have cost 25,000 lives, and a second one imposed five weeks after the experts had warned a circuit break was urgently required; sending infected people back into care homes without testing; the baffling decision to allow mass gatherings to go ahead and to allow air travellers to keep arriving without even the most basic checks once they had landed; or the serial failures to set up a functional test-and-trace system, the record is abysmal – borne out by the fact that Britain has the highest death toll in Europe.

Alongside the uselessness has come callousness. Again, it’s never voiced as baldly as it was by Trump, but the choices speak for themselves. This is a government that has had to be dragged – twice – into extending free school meals to hungry, poor children when they need them, acting only after moral instruction had been supplied by a professional footballer. Now we learn that the price of Britain’s public-finances problem – which is real – is to be paid by public-sector workers in the form of a wage freeze. Admittedly, NHS staff are to be exempt, but still it is the teachers and key council workers, whose indispensability has been confirmed anew during this crisis, who are once again to bear the brunt of austerity. And all the while, the government is leading us into another economic hurricane, one that will inflict far more damage than Covid, in the form of the Brexit that is waiting for us once the clock strikes midnight to usher in the new year.

While Trump delighted in shattering norms, our own government has been doing the same in its own, understated, rather more British way. There was, for example, a time when breaking the ministerial code triggered automatic resignation or sacking – yet Priti Patel remains in post.

Still, perhaps the most egregious behaviour, which has not yet quite sunk in, is in the realm of what itches to be called corruption. This week’s report by the National Audit Office into the way billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money was spent in the first phase of the crisis, either scrambling to acquire personal protective equipment or on consultants’ advice, is by turns damning and jaw-dropping. It found that £17.3bn had been doled out in “direct awards” – contracts secured without competitive tender.

That raises questions about waste, as huge sums were paid to entrepreneurs with no track record in producing PPE. We already knew of the notorious £155m spent on unusable face masks. Now we can add the example of Saiger, a Miami jewellery company that bagged £250m in PPE contracts, paying £21m of that, with the promise of £16m more, to a consultant who helped broker the purchase of the gear. Was there really no other way for the government to get hold of that kit without paying £37m of your taxes and mine to a middleman?

But a word even more troubling than “waste” appears several times in the NAO report, and that word is “bias”. The report confirms the existence of a “high-priority lane”, a VIP channel, in the procurement process. Any would-be supplier sufficiently well connected to get a recommendation from a minister’s office, an MP, peer or government official was immediately sent into the first-class queue. Those companies were more than 10 times more likely to win a contract than the suckers in standard class. How exactly did these suppliers get into the VIP lane? Alas, we don’t know. The NAO sighs that “leads were recorded” for fewer than half of the nearly 500 companies that went through the elite channel. “A clear trail of documents to support key procurement decisions was sometimes missing.”

It doesn’t end there. The Good Law Project, the campaigning lawyers who were first to discover the existence of the VIP lanes, has found other revealing papers. These show that the government would ask questions about value for money only when a bidding company demanded more than 25% above the average paid to other suppliers. Noting the evidence of massive overcharging by key suppliers who passed through the high-priority lane, the Good Law Project wonders if those blessed by access to the VIP lane were blessed again with “lucrative inside information about pricing”. It would, after all, be very handy to know that you could demand £1.24 for an item when everyone else was charging £1, no questions asked.

In a crisis that has squeezed so many, and which has cost people their jobs, their livelihoods, their businesses – as well as their loved ones and their lives – it’s unnerving to learn of those for whom Covid has been a cash bonanza. And yet there seems to be a curious pattern here. It could be Ayanda Capital, that purveyor of ultimately useless masks. Asked whether it might be relevant that the man who brokered the deal for Ayanda was also a government trade adviser, Ayanda’s chief executive told the BBC, “It’s a coincidence.”

Just as it’s a coincidence that a lobbying firm, Hanbury Strategy, founded by a former Vote Leave buddy of Dominic Cummings, was handed contracts worth £640,000 without competitive tender. To say nothing of the £550,000 that went, also without competition, to Public First, the political consultancy whose two directors are former colleagues of Cummings’ patron Michael Gove. Just as it’s a coincidence that Kate Bingham, the “vaccine tsar”, is shelling out £670,000 of our money to a firm of PR consultants whose company secretary appears to be a longtime business associate of Cummings’ father-in-law.

None of this is as florid, or as blatant, as the abuse of office we watched unfold in the Trump White House. But that difference can blind us to what is right before our eyes. The Good Law Project’s Jolyon Maugham says there is a reflexive impulse to say, “This is England, this doesn’t happen here. But that is a terrible complacency.” As Trump leaves the stage, we can be complacent no longer. It can happen here – and it has.

  • Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist

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