It was a fresh-faced Tony Blair who rose, grinning, to the despatch box in the summer of 1994. The road ahead wasn’t clear, but he certainly faced fewer obstacles than Labour leaders of old.
The Conservative administration of John Major was beginning to stumble. Cabinet minister David Mellor had been forced to resign in 1992 over allegations of an affair, and scandals surrounding senior MPs were widespread in the tabloid press, such as the case of Tim Yeo, who had fathered an illegitimate child despite having previously lambasted so-called ‘broken families’ and single mothers.
The culmination of this was what voters perceived as an ever-deeper ‘culture of sleaze’ permeating John Major and his team. As time wore on, it became an open sore - regularly prodded, poked and publicly displayed by the Labour front benches. We all know what happened at the next election.
Now, as then, sleaze appears to have its tentacles around the Conservatives. The furore over the Prime Minister’s renovations to his official Downing Street flat, as well as alleged cronyism in handing government contracts to Tory donors and friends of Cabinet members seems once more to have seeped into the public consciousness.
A recent poll for The Observer found that four out of ten voters think the Conservatives are “untrustworthy” in the wake of these stories. The question is, can Johnson stop the rot before the next election, and if not, will he befall the same crushing defeat at the ballot box that Major suffered in 1997?
The narrative of sleaze did not appear to cut through in the recent local elections that took place on Thursday 6th May 2021. The Conservatives won a stunning victory in the Hartlepool by-election, gaining the seat for the first time since its creation in 1964. The Tories also equalled their best ever result in the elections to the Scottish Parliament, as well as performing better than ever before in Wales.
However, many analysts have put these positive results down to the success of the COVID-19 vaccine programme. All governing parties in the three UK nations holding elections did well - the SNP in Scotland won a fourth successive term, Welsh Labour matched their best ever seat tally, and the Conservatives in England gained over 300 councillors. We are not living in normal times, and this election could well be an outlier. Polls had shown the Conservative lead narrowing in recent weeks, perhaps down to Keir Starmer landing blows on Boris at Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) over Tory sleaze.
The next general election could be more than three years away, giving Starmer and his team more than enough time to work out a strategy which could hurt Boris Johnson. Labour campaigners say that the issue of sleaze came up on the doorstep in Hartlepool - so are voters catching on to what Labour claims is corruption within the governing party?
But what exactly are the allegations that Keir Starmer is making about the Conservatives and Boris Johnson, and why do they matter?
The first is to do with ‘cronyism’ - giving work and contracts to personal friends and business contacts without actually seeing if they’ll do the best job. A report by the National Audit Office found that £10.5 billion of government contracts were given to PPE suppliers without any competition.
Labour are claiming this amounts to cronyism, and that government ministers are being reckless with public money by not following due process in awarding contracts. Health Secretary Matt Hancock was also found to have broken the law by not revealing the details of such contracts within the required 30 days.
The government says it was acting under pressure and the competition process (where businesses ‘compete’ to be awarded a contract by the government) would have taken too long and would have cost lives at the height of the pandemic.
The second allegation of sleaze concerns former Prime Minister David Cameron. Mr Cameron was caught in a media storm last month after allegedly texting Chancellor Rishi Sunak on his personal phone in an attempt to get him to give COVID-related financial relief to Greensill Capital, a company that Cameron worked for. It soon became clear that Cameron would have personally benefited if the relief was given.
This is an example of the ‘lobbying’ system - where politicians, such as the Chancellor, are asked by private businesses and others to change the law on their behalf.
Labour are not arguing against the concept of lobbying itself, but are saying that David Cameron’s position in public life makes it deeply unethical for him to ask former colleagues for support, particularly for his own financial gain.
Cameron has since issued a statement, saying that he “complied with the rules” throughout, and the government’s position is the same. The statement reminded Labour that no money actually ended up being given to Greensill Capital, which went bust as a result.
The final allegation of sleaze is to do with new curtains. Boris Johnson and his fiancee, Carrie Symmonds, recently renovated their private Downing Street flat for an alleged cost of approximately £200,000. The money is meant to come either from the taxpayer or the Prime Minister’s salary, but Labour claims the money was initially donated to Johnson through the Conservative Party, which would be illegal because donations of a political nature are not allowed to be spent on private matters. Tory peer Lord Brownlow, the 521st richest person in the UK, is said to have given £58,000 to help pay for the refurbishment.
The Prime Minister says that he personally “met the costs” of the renovation, but refuses to say who initially paid for it. Labour says that it shows how the Prime Minister is in the pocket of private donors. The Electoral Commission has said there are “reasonable grounds” to suspect a crime has been committed and have launched an investigation, the results of which are expected in due course.
All of this could play out in a number of ways. Labour could drop the accusations against the Prime Minister if voters are turned off by them. Certainly, the local election results show that a change of Labour strategy is badly needed. However, the Opposition could double-down on sleaze, hammering it home at PMQs and trying to whip up public outrage. The question is whether the government can deflect such criticisms and offer an alternative narrative - Boris Johnson says that nobody is interested in the Downing Street renovations, and what really matters is how the pandemic is dealt with and whether the vaccine is rolled out successfully.
It is hard to see right now whether sleaze will topple the Conservative Party from their position of dominance in Westminster. However, the seeds could be sown for a tough election campaign later down the road, if Labour get their strategy right. John Major and Boris Johnson are very different politicians, and Keir Starmer will need to wait and see whether he too will be grinning as broadly, come the next election, as his own predecessor Tony Blair.