This essay, on the normalisation of corruption and incompetence, was my Observer column this week. (The column included also a short piece on the funding of the Biden transition.) It was published on 22 November 2020, under the headline “From Grenfell to PPE, absolute power still corrupts in high places”.
A cladding manufacturer allegedly fakes results to win a contract for material it knows is a deathtrap. The government sets up a system to reward companies with whom ministers have links. Almost 90% of Windrush victims making compensation claims have yet to receive payment, while the home secretary responsible for that scheme is found guilty of bullying.
Just another week in 2020 Britain. And, this being 2020 Britain, the people facing the consequences of abuse of power, malfeasance and incompetence are not those responsible but those who suffer.
Last Monday, the inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire heard how, after its cladding had failed the first safety test, the manufacturer, Celotex, simply set up a second test, apparently rigged the results and won the contract to wrap the block with flammable cladding. It was an astonishing revelation, but barely reported in the press.
Two days later, the National Audit Office published a damning report on the government’s procurement process for Covid-19, revealing that companies placed in a “high-priority” channel were 10 times more likely to be awarded a contract. You didn’t need to be good at producing PPE to be in this channel, you just needed to know a minister. A currency trading firm, Ayanda Capital, won a £252m contract to supply millions of face masks, in a deal brokered by Andrew Mills, a government adviser who just also happened to be an adviser to Ayanda. Jobs, too, from the chair of the vaccine taskforce to the head of the disastrous NHS test-and-trace operation, are seemingly allocated on the basis not of what you know but of who you know (or are married to).
Meanwhile, the Guardian’s Amelia Gentleman revealed that Alexandra Ankrah, the head of policy for the Home Office Windrush compensation scheme, had resigned in frustration. The scheme, Ankrah pointed out, was administered by “the very same people who hadn’t questioned the Windrush situation in the first place”. Nine people have died while awaiting compensation.
Look at these cases individually and you might describe each as an isolated instance of “chumocracy” – some might call it corruption – or “policy failure”. They are all different kinds of wrongness. Celotex’s seemingly shocking disregard for human life in the name of profit-making is of a different order to the indifference to people’s needs apparent in the Home Office. But put these cases together and a different picture emerges. A picture of how power works. A picture of elite contempt for rules, for social needs, for the little people.
There is nothing new in corruption or incompetence. Business and sleaze have long worked hand in hand, public officials have often been negligent, ministers have rarely been shy of taking advantage of their connections. What is new is the lack of pushback or the threat of any consequences.
The housing secretary, Robert Jenrick, “shocked” by the Grenfell revelations, insisted on the need for “stiffer regulation for building safety”, which is “too lax”. He failed to mention that the regulations are too lax because of a long history of government mania for deregulation. Or that the year before the Grenfell fire, the then business secretary, Sajid Javid, had introduced a “one in, three out” rule, meaning that for every regulation introduced, three had to be cut, and the government boasted of reducing fire safety inspections from six hours to 45 minutes.
After the NAO report, ministers simply shrugged their shoulders as if to say that’s how it is. “At the time there was huge pressure to get PPE into the system and that’s what we did,” said the business secretary, Alok Sharma. As if a health emergency is good reason for malpractice.
There was a time when those responsible for incompetence might have resigned. Now, it’s those who expose the wrongdoing who have to go: not just Ankrah, but Alex Allan, too, Boris Johnson’s adviser and the author of the bullying report about Priti Patel.
And all the while, the Labour party is too busy fighting with itself, and wanting to appear “responsible”, to hold ministers to account. A 23-year-old footballer has put more pressure on the government than the official opposition. The media seem more interested in soap operas, whether in No 10 or in the Home Office, than in failures of policy or misuse of power. And so incompetence and sleaze have become normalised, brushed aside with a shrug or a transparently insincere apology.
The English ruling class, George Orwell wrote in 1941, during the Blitz, “will rob, mismanage, sabotage, lead us into the muck”, but in a crisis it is “morally fairly sound”. I doubt if it was true then. It is even less true now.