‘It’s the return of Tory sleaze’: so said Keir Starmer at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday. His was an assertion immediately echoed by various leading Labour figures across social media. Former prime minister David Cameron’s questionable relationship with Greensill Capital is the immediate occasion for this potentially toxic claim. But Labour clearly hopes to drag Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak and many other ministers into the mix. For, as Starmer went on, ‘sleaze’ is ‘at the heart of this Conservative government’.
In contrast, Johnson is seeking to protect himself against the taint of ‘sleaze’ by announcing an inquiry into claims of impropriety. Perhaps it will protect him. But in the meantime, Labour will do its best to advance the case that Cameron’s lobbying of ministers is just the tip of the iceberg, that Johnson’s is an administration intent on looking after its friends and donors, literally at the nation’s expense.
During the Covid crisis, Labour tried to interest the public in ministers’ habit of granting huge contracts to their chums, which often failed to deliver on their promises and left those working on the pandemic frontline bereft of PPE. There was also Dominic Cummings’ Barnard Castle adventure, which suggested No. 10 believed there was one rule for them and another for the rest of us. But until now the party has pulled its punches as Starmer did not want to be accused of playing politics while thousands of Britons were dying. Instead, the Labour leader focused on establishing his persona as a politician who was perhaps a bit dull but was at least straightforward and competent.
Many of Cameron’s activities predate the pandemic but the timing of their exposure, with Britons hopefully putting the worst of the Covid crisis behind them, has encouraged Labour to go on the offensive and reveal ‘Starmer Unleashed’, one unafraid to indulge in a bit populist rhetoric. Certainly, the Labour leader was less buttoned-up at PMQs than once he was.
But will accusations of a new ‘Tory sleaze’ work to Labour’s advantage? There are certainly some interesting similarities but also differences with the 1990s.
A hazy but potent term, ‘sleaze’ gained currency soon after John Major’s 1992 election victory, his party’s fourth in a row. But in September that year, ‘Black Wednesday’ saw sterling forced out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism after the Treasury wasted £3 billion trying to stay in. This eviscerated the government’s reputation for economic competence that, on top of Conservative divisions over the future direction of the EU, gave it a hapless look.
This was the context for the emergence of ‘sleaze’, a term spawned by journalists seeking to translate the travails of Major’s already-troubled administration into saleable copy. ‘Sleaze’ gave shape to a disparate set of long-standing concerns about the flawed nature of British politics, ones that focused on the Conservatives because they had been in office for so long. Incorporating worries about the close relationship between politicians and the private sector, ‘sleaze’ sometimes referred to the practice of former ministers exploiting their insider knowledge; the extent to which the Conservative party relied on donations from millionaires of ill-repute; or the payment of government MPs by lobbyists.
But if these instances of actual, near or mostly alleged corruption preoccupied the broadsheet press, the tabloids, most notably the Sun, employed ‘sleaze’ to characterise Conservative party figures’ adulterous affairs or idiosyncratic sexual practices. In the hope of restoring Major’s fortunes in 1993, the Conservatives launched their ‘back to basics’ campaign intent on restoring traditional values, taking notable aim at single mothers. But all the campaign did was give journalists the green light to expose married male Conservative MPs’ own enthusiastic — and staggeringly hypocritical — creation of one-parent families.
Financial and sexual corruption — for journalists, ‘sleaze’ was a heady brew. Tony Blair, who became Labour leader in the midst of media accusations of ‘sleaze’, was however initially reluctant to use it against the government because (according to Alastair Campbell’s diaries), he believed the ‘reality was our politics was probably [the] least corrupt of anywhere in the world’. But Blair soon overcame his inhibitions as ‘sleaze’ helped his case for the need for a ‘new politics’, something which undoubtedly helped Labour win big in 1997.
Thanks to the pandemic, the scale of any revived financial ‘Tory sleaze’ is much bigger than it was in the 1990s. Thirty years ago, only junior figures were implicated but today it potentially leads all the way to No. 10 and the cabinet. There is no sexual aspect in 2021: expectations of our politicians’ personal conduct are much lower than it was and Johnson, in particular, makes no claims to be a moral paragon, which is just as well. The Prime Minister is many things but he is not a hypocrite, although he may still have questions to answer about his dealings with Jennifer Accuri.
According to YouGov 75 per cent of the public are aware of the Cameron story with 24 per cent following it very or fairly closely. This is surprisingly high given the public’s usual aversion to political news and their current focus on the easing of lockdown and the death of Prince Philip. And the ones following the story most closely are older Britons, those of the generation that will remember the first ‘Tory sleaze’ scandal and the very voters Starmer has been trying so hard to attract back to the party. But ‘sleaze’ needs more than Commons debates and the reports of select committees to take life in the public imagination: the role of the tabloids was vital in the 1990s, especially that of the Sun, and currently it looks unwilling to play the same role again. Rupert Murdoch is sticking with Johnson — for the moment at least.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.