To repurpose the old saw about the 60s, if you think you can remember 90s politics, particularly if you plan to turn them into a parable for today, you’re remembering the wrong thing. Relax, I’m lecturing myself more than anyone else: as the waves of Matt Hancock’s share ownership crashed over the fetid waters of David Cameron’s Greensill involvement, with the Arcuri affair standing unresolved and Robert Jenrick walking round like a human hyperlink (if only you could click on him, to find out more), my first thought was “here we go again”. More Tory sleaze, because leopards, spots etc.
In fact, John Major’s government and the scandals it produced could not have been more different to those of Boris Johnson’s government. It was backbenchers who were taking the backhanders – MPs Graham Riddick and David Tredinnick, who did the world’s memory that tremendous favour of rhyming like a riddle, were caught out in a newspaper sting in which they agreed to ask a parliamentary question for £1,000. No need to translate that into today’s money; it suffices to say that if a newspaper, a broadsheet at that, can afford to float it for a story, it is not huge beans.
MPs Neil Hamilton and Tim Smith were accused of pocketing more significant amounts from Mohamed Al Fayed, but it was still noted at the time that the reason the UK always scored so well on international corruption indexes was not because its politicians weren’t bent, but because they could be bought for so little. Jonathan Aitken lost everything over a two-night stay at the Paris Ritz.
Ministerial scandals, meanwhile, tended to be about sex: David Mellor and Stephen Milligan, for example. They were scandalous for the lurid details, but their political bite came from the disconnect between who the party said it was and who it actually was. An MP having a gay affair was hugely significant from the party of section 28. All sexual impropriety made a prime minister whose motto was “back to basics” look ridiculous – not least his own, although it would be some years before we’d find out about that.
Contrast this with 21st-century Conservatives and the amounts now involved are astronomical. David Cameron stood to make nearly £22m had Greensill not collapsed. There is also an interconnectedness, now, at the highest levels of government – crony appointments, contracts swelled to huge proportions by the exigencies of the coronavirus and handed to companies connected to the Tory party, the normal checks and balances dissolved as civil servants were overruled by ministers. Things were markedly different in the 90s, which were defined by individuals ploughing their own muddy furrows.
Yet all the stories of the Major years were connected, and the whole enterprise was ultimately brought down by hypocrisy. Whatever you say about today’s Conservatives, the culture is set at the top, and Boris Johnson has never made any pretence of values, basic or otherwise: he’s never been anything but playfully delighted by his own dishonesty. Even were he to launch a moral crusade today, it would be viewed against the backdrop of his advertised self, the joshing chancer people voted for. And if the details of 90s scandals – the toe-sucking and so on – ignited the nation’s imagination, that was only ever because they fitted a narrative of moralising blowhards undone by their own instincts. Today’s Conservatives, defined by impunity, are impossible to embarrass.
That doesn’t mean they’re untouchable. It just means we need a more accurate and tailored account of what we’re dealing with. The government, unleashed by the urgency of the pandemic, is essaying a state capitalism in which the way to make real money is via private influence over government ministers. It’s a version of the Chinese concept of guanxi, a famous driver of corruption, constructed at speed. Any institution that might threaten a corrective – whether the civil service or the CBI – is sidelined in favour of hasty deals with hucksters over WhatsApp.
This helps make sense of the other great conundrum of the Johnson government: what does it actually stand for? If the performative patriotism is a diversion, what’s it diverting from? What’s the actual agenda? One minute ministers are advocating austerity, the next they’re levelling up; they’re fighting climate change on Monday and reopening coal mines on Tuesday. They’re radical free marketeers, destroying their own markets; they’re fiscal conservatives, to whom money is no object. The most plausible analysis is one by the journalist Paul Mason, who thinks the Conservatives have become a machine whose only purpose is to keep themselves in power.
That raises another question – what’s the point of power, with no higher purpose? There surely has to be an element of personal gain to get you out of bed in the morning, and by “element”, of course I mean “shitload”.
This model of government poses a threat to the nation’s wellbeing that is far more profound than small-time crooks and sexual moralisers. It requires the systematic degradation of the surrounding institutions and habits of democracy. The 90s anti-sleaze playbook won’t work in this situation. The politics we’re witnessing now are really quite novel, and must be recognised and described as such. Nostalgia can’t rise to this challenge.