To many people, politics and corruption are synonymous: two sides of the same coin. The UK is no stranger to this perception, with sleaze accusations traceable throughout British political history. Corruption in politics has major ramifications, often not for the politicians indicted, but for the ordinary people whose needs are compromised because of sleaze amongst their representatives. Sleaze and corruption have been responsible for leaving social inequalities unaddressed, contributing to financial scandals, and undermining the positions and legitimacy of political institutions.
Boris Johnson himself has been subject to sleaze accusations, but the accusations against the current Conservative government, that have come to a head in the last week, hold the potential to seriously damage the Tory party politically. The scandal of Owen Paterson’s paid advocacy for Randox Laboratories and Lynn’s country Foods is the latest in a long list of scandals that have arisen over the last few years. Indeed, with such high levels of coverage due to its relation to the pandemic, this is a scandal that has the potential to truly damage the reputation of the Tory party moving into the next election.
Indication of the impact of recent scandals comes in further polling recording public , with a negative leaning of 46.6% representing his lowest positivity rating since before the 2019 election. Redfield & Wilton Strategies’ latest voting intention poll has found the Labour Party leading by 2%, after being a point behind the Conservatives in a poll from just three days ago.
Historically, sleaze has had a major impact on election campaigns. The 1997 new Labour campaign played massively on the sleaze of the incumbent Major government. The “back to basics” campaign and its subsequent scandals are remarkably reminiscent of todays, and therefore their potential impact cannot be understated. What seems most interesting now is how the Owen Paterson scandal, layered with countless others, appears to be taking a certain amount of attention away from the pandemic itself, and diverting scrutiny to politicians directly.
It’s important to not place too much emphasis on the Owen Paterson scandal as an isolated event, as emphasis placed on such scandals directs focus on individual politicians, as opposed to looking to corruption in politics as an institutional problem. Politicians need to be held to higher standards. The move of the current government to attempt to rewrite conduct rules illustrates the need for a series of independent checks and verification to prevent MPs from being able to vote on such measures. Hancock’s covid contracts, the refurbishment of Downing Street, disappearing messages, and attempts to sway watchdog panels are all recent examples of sleaze from the current government. The frequency of such scandals raises serious questions surrounding the legitimacy and respectability of elected officials, especially when considering the long history of sleaze that consolidates its role in political culture.
The 1960’s Profumo Affair, like the failure of the back-to-basics campaign, contributed to the fall of a Tory government, with the resignation of Profumo and influence of the scandal exacerbating the failures of the Macmillan government. Following the resignation of Labour MP Ian Gibson during the 2009 expenses scandal, the constituency’s by-election saw a Conservative victory. Whilst not necessarily a direct example of sleaze, such a result demonstrates the potential for scandal to have electoral impact. Whilst the 2009 expense scandal did not have a particularly large impact on the outcome of the 2010 election, the combination of current scandals, their severity, and the handling of both the Coronavirus pandemic and Brexit may well be enough to sway the vote to Labour’s favour come the next general election.