Not least because of the exceptional effort that went into suppressing the story, it’s looking increasingly likely that the prime minister has, as alleged, been moonlighting – with mixed success – as Carrie Johnson’s agent. But as ever with Johnson, it’s probably futile to hope that further achievements in polluting public life will be ruinous to his prospects.
Where does “known nepotist tried more nepotism” even rank beside the transgressions he’s survived? If it’s worse than blagging a £112,000 flat refurb and soliciting a £150,000 treehouse from the same donor, it’s not as reprehensible as repeatedly breaking your own health legislation, lying about it, then becoming the first sitting prime minister to get a fixed penalty notice. And that delinquency was arguably less sinister than the broader ethical attrition that is his trademark, from humiliating ethics advisers to the attempt to save Owen Paterson, by changing the rules, from suspension by the committee on standards in public life (CSPL). That’s the committee already accommodating a fellow former member of the Bullingdon Club, an appointment Labour described as “rampant sleaze”.
Again, if it weren’t for the farcical censorship, Johnson’s alleged breach of five out of seven Nolan principles (integrity, selflessness, objectivity, accountability, leadership) might still look mild in comparison with the successful, completely open nepotism that gifted his brother a seat in the House of Lords. That came after Johnson’s former lover, Jennifer Arcuri, felt the benefit of his mentoring: “How can I be your footstool to your career?”
But much as Caligula’s horse never got the consul job, making do with a luxurious stable upgrade, the then Carrie Symonds never did work at the Foreign Office. Or later, at the Earthshot prize. Is the footstool losing his touch? Downing Street, a rogue outfit that could once shelter Dominic Cummings, with his “weirdos and misfits”, and create insane peerages against official advice, for Lord Lebedev, the KGB agent’s son, and for the cash-for-access Tory asset, Lord Cruddas, appears to have struggled to promote his wife, even with her glowing credentials.
But what could be yet more useful in burying the latest known micro-breaches in the great dung heap of Johnson’s reputation is that, in treating elected office as a whole-family enterprise, he’s not, for once, unusual. As recently as 2017, when they were consulted on reform by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, a majority of MPs defended a tradition of institutionalised nepotism, for which the parliamentary euphemism is “connected parties”. There were the usual protests that an astonishing number of political Wags turn out to be uniquely diligent workers; that random husbands, daughters, grandchildren, nieces and parents likewise deserve never-advertised jobs offering – barring electoral defeat – total job security and an endlessly understanding boss.
Current connected employees include a son convicted of supplying drugs and a wife penalised for drink driving. The loyalty can work both ways: Harriet Warburton continued working (between £35,000 and £39,000 a year) for David Warburton after press allegations about sexual harassment. The MP is now being investigated on three different counts by the parliamentary standards commissioner. Inquiries to Mrs Warburton, his “senior communication officer”.
Happily, in the face of MPs’ resistance, Ipsa instead endorsed the view of the CSPL that appointing family is “out of step with modern employment practice” and abolished it. Less happily, it decided that existing family staff should be allowed to work indefinitely. In the event, for instance, of Nadine Dorries ever surrendering her seat, constituents would endure the loss not only of the culture secretary but of her daughter, Jennifer Dorries, a “senior parliamentary assistant” whose salary last year was between £45,000 and £49,999.00. At least the Dorrieses would have the consolation of reducing nepotism in mid-Bedfordshire. Nadine, who at one point employed two daughters, has spoken passionately about workplace accessibility, “not just [to] people whose mum and dad worked there”.
Ipsa made the further concession that, should they become “connected parties” – presumably by sleeping with their employer – previously unconnected workers could continue, thus redesignated, for a further two years.
Five years since these reforms, that more than 80 MPs still employ connected parties leaves them in this respect hardly more ethical, if generally more genteel, than Johnson. Supposing there’s a difference between their licensed nepotism and the married Johnson’s alleged plan, when foreign secretary, for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to employ his wife’s imminent successor, it seems to rest mainly on technicalities. In most cases, the public is essentially required to fund connected functionaries because of their sexual relationship with the hiring MP.
The public is essentially required to fund connected functionaries due to their sexual relationship with the hiring MP
True, a number of beneficiaries, as with the earlier papal system, are blood or step relations of their employer. Ian Blackford pays his stepson; Gavin Robinson has appointed his father as office manager. Thérèse Coffey’s sister, Clare, assists the work and pensions minister, according to the register of interests, “on a casual basis”; the latest Ipsa data shows her employed last year as a full-time case worker (£25,000 to £29,000). Which may or may not be reasonable; without any qualification or performance indicators, who knows? Maybe Central Suffolk and North Ipswich is fortunate that Dan Poulter employs his mum, Carol Poulter, as his assistant, for between £35,000 and £39,000 (part time). Dan is 43.
Now, indirectly, Johnson also benefits from this abject system, it having allowed his supporters to dismiss allegations about thwarted nepotism as a massive “so what?”. At the same time, it’s tricky for cleaner figures to shame Johnson’s nepotism, as they can his cronyism, if some of their most ostentatiously virtuous colleagues don’t personally see the harm in it. In fact, the clearest sign that this constituted a significant affront to remaining government proprieties surely came from Downing Street itself. If ventures in covert nepotism could look like nothing special in the light of Johnson’s record and of cross-party tolerance for unfair appointments, at least someone close to him thought it so compromising as to be worth covering up. Well done them.
• Catherine Bennett is an Observer columnist
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