Does anyone remember where accountability went?


We must do more to hold our elected politicians accountable

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By Raphael Henry

Tensions arose earlier this year when it became apparent that Boris Johnson may have misused Conservative Party donations in the renovation of his Downing Street flat. Fast forward to last week, and the Tory Party has been handed a fine for its role in aiding the Prime Minister in his dodgy transactions. Rather than putting this matter to rest, this attempt at justice feels more like a slap in the face.

Imagine you’ve just robbed a bank. You walk out of the front door with over £50,000 in a duffel bag, wince at the sound of a particularly loud police siren, and then trip over your own shoelaces in front of a security guard.

Your trial is pretty cut and dry: there’s a huge amount of evidence, after all, not least since you were caught spectacularly red handed. As punishment, however, the judge decides to fine your employer £17,000, and lets you off with nothing more than a slap on the wrist.

You walk out of the courtroom, slightly stunned, having kept the £50,000 entirely for yourself (despite costing your employer a hefty fine). On your way home, you stop off to tell a few reporters that what you did was completely legal. Maybe you pop into a mid-Lockdown Christmas party or two.

The only detail which softens this analogy for Boris Johnson is that he didn’t actually go out and steal the money used to renovate his flat. Instead, he got his funds in the most “Boris Johnson” way possible: one of his friends, Lord Brownlow, ‘donated’ it to him. The big controversy with this specific £50,000 donation is that it wasn’t declared in the big book of Tory donations, which is meant to keep all transactions above-board. In total, including some further above-board transactions, Johnson was loaned almost £120,000 by Lord Brownlow. I wonder what favours you can ask when the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is £120,000 in your debt?

The fine, presented to the Tory Party for its role in presiding over a ‘renovation fund’ to quietly turn political donations into £850-a-roll golden wallpaper, was the result of an eight-month investigation by the Electoral Commission. If this was the Commission’s best attempt at putting things right, I’m not really sure that accountability counts for anything anymore – letting the Tories keep more than half of their ill-gotten gains seems like a pretty favourable deal for them, and I don’t see this discouraging them from pulling the exact same stunt in the future.

Speaking of accountability, does anyone remember whose job it is to ensure Covid-19 restrictions are obeyed? The Metropolitan Police force certainly seem to have forgotten, after they decided that multiple breaches of Lockdown rules by the Prime Minister’s own team (and most likely the man himself) warranted no further investigation whatsoever (lets not forget that this is the very same police force that handed out 120,000 fines to the public from 2020 to mid 2021). I could talk more about No.10 partying away whilst families said goodbye to their loved ones over Zoom, but I think I might be sick if I have to contemplate it for even a moment longer.

So, the police clearly won’t hold the government accountable, the watchdogs and regulators are trying but failing to keep hold of the leash, and the opposition are only just starting to wake up and remember that, oh yes, they are the opposition. What does that leave in terms of fail-safes? The final institutional bastion seems to be the process of judicial review, which allows the courts to determine the legality of the government’s actions and force change where the government is deemed to be acting unlawfully. It will surprise a sum total of no one that Boris Johnson has his sights set on tearing this down as well: reports indicate the Prime Minister wants to give his cabinet the power to throw out judicial rulings they disagree with, in what leading lawyers have called an “affront to democracy.”

And yet there is one resistance that, try as he might, Johnson will remain unable to control: public outrage. For some time now, the Prime Minister has masterfully directed public outrage at anything but himself – immigrants, Europe, his own allies – but as story after story piles up detailing Tory misbehaviours, the cumbersome beast of public opinion becomes just that little bit less enchanted by the party clown of Downing Street.

It won’t be enough - at least not yet. But when that enchantment finally erodes away, it’ll be well worth tuning in to watch the show. Apparently there are front row tickets going for £120,000 in donations, if you’re interested.