By Ellen Fasham
Last week, The Times broke yet another ‘Tory sleaze’ story with the ‘Access Capitalism’ scandal. At the centre is co-chair of the Conservative Party Ben Elliot, who is also the nephew of Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, and founder of Quintessentially, an organisation providing elite services for the ultra-wealthy.
This scandal broke when Tory donor Mohamed Amersi told The Times of an intimate meeting between himself and Prince Charles, organised by Elliot for a significant payment. By now this reads like a broken record. Every few weeks, reporters repeat the murky melodies of interconnected political, business, and personal circles and dubious funding methods with the latest ‘sleaze scandal’. Yet despite this consistency, the ‘Access Capitalism’ scandal has failed to cut through to the public, lacking attention from tabloid headlines and instead only briefly rippling through the journalistic spaces of Twitter.
This is partly down to the astonishing failure of the Labour party to bring due criticism to the cloudy world of Conservative circles. During the pandemic, Sir Keir Starmer adopted a remarkably un-oppositional position towards Boris Johnson’s policies, and indeed perhaps his emphasis on collaboration in a time of unprecedented crisis was understandable. However, this approach can be considered more and more vacuous as the early days of lockdown continue to recede further in the rear-view mirror. While both he and Anneliese Dodds, the Labour party chairwoman, highlighted the government’s need for full financial transparency in response to the ‘Access Capitalism’ scandal, this criticism lacks the bite to pose any considerable threat to the Tories’ electoral support.
In a more cutting remark a few months ago, Sir Keir announced the ‘return of Tory sleaze’, reevoking the same term which poisoned John Major’s leadership of the Conservative party in the late 1990s. Back then, ‘sleaze’ was particularly connected with the moral hypocrisy of Tory ministers’ lurid sexual affairs. Then as preaching MPs fathered trails of illegitimate children, the electorate demonstrated an overwhelming rejection of Tory sleaze by supporting New Labour and their promises of a ‘new politics’.
In the 21st century, however, the public seems apathetic towards scandal, and Sir Keir’s attempts to reignite the anti-sleaze atmosphere of the nineties feel more like a lacklustre direct-to-television sequel. This is because present day scandals lack two key elements: drama and, more importantly, hypocrisy. To start, today’s sleaze-scandals mainly concern underhand financial operating, such the Greensill lobbying scandal or the Downing Street refurbishments. Not only are details convoluted and difficult to engage with, but, in terms of drama, disputes over Johnson’s wallpaper don’t quite match the salacious exposés of MPs’ sexual liaisons.
More significant, however, is the element of hypocrisy. The public continues to react strongly against hypocrisy today, whether it is outcry over Dominic Cummings’ trip to Bernard Castle or furore over Matt Hancock’s infamous infidelity. In both instances, politicians broke the very rules which they were asking the public to follow. However, there is otherwise little outcry over lying or cheating because it has become almost expected from our politicians. Boris Johnson seems to revel in his impunity, playful impudence, and chummy cronyism, and while nearly half of voters associate Mr Johnson with dishonesty and greed, only 14% of Tory supporters said this would make them less likely to back the party as a result. This suggests that most supporters deliberately overlook concerning political impropriety and indeed factor it in when choosing who to elect.
The electorate is desensitised to the government’s dishonesty and this public indifference is corroding the integrity of our democracy. A tolerance for lying and deceit in the political sphere provides an alarming space for corruption and, and if left unchecked, this murky and malleable treatment of the truth could turn towards a political system resemblant not of a democratic regime but an authoritarian one. It is sometimes difficult to understand why we should care about a dinner between Mohamed Amersi and Prince Charles or the price of Boris Johnson’s wallpaper, but the success of democracy depends upon the electorate to expect nothing but total and complete integrity from their politicians and a willingness to hold them accountable when this they fail to deliver.
Image: Camara de comercio de bogota via Flickr