Boris Johnson’s tenure as UK’s prime minister has not been easy. When he took on the role no one could have expected the devastating toll that coronavirus would take on the country. On top of the actual pandemic there are the unanswered questions about how prepared the government were to respond when Covid struck.
Then, as the vaccine role out gathered pace and infection rates started to fall significantly it looked like Mr Johnson’s luck was changing. The PM must have been looking forward to a period of calm following the storm.
The last couple of weeks appear to show his own ministers, civil servants and even an old school chum have other ideas.
Following on from what seems to be never ending procession of allegations around cronyism and the Conservative government comes the revelation surrounding his Health secretary Matt Hancock.
It has emerged that Mr Hancock has a stake in his sister’s company, Topwood Ltd which recently won NHS contracts, raising further questions over the links between the Tory government and the private sector.
Last month, Topwood won two NHS Wales contracts worth £150,000 each to carry out waste disposal services, including the shredding of confidential documents. There is no suggestion that Mr Hancock influenced the award of the contracts; the administration of the NHS in Wales is devolved to the country’s government, so does not fall under Mr Hancock’s control.
However, The Health Service Journal found that in 2019, just months after Mr Hancock became secretary of state, Topwood was also in line for health contracts in England, securing a place on the NHS Shared Business Services framework for “confidential waste destruction and disposal”. The framework is effectively a shortlist of providers available to the local NHS. The HSJ added that Mr Hancock did not declare his association with the firm in any of the published ministerial interests’ declarations of recent years.
These revelations come at a time when Mr Hancock is also facing questions about his involvement with former prime minister, David Cameron and Lex Greensill, the Australian farmer turned banker and chairman of Greensill Capital. It has been alleged that in October 2019 Mr Cameron met with Mr Greensill and the Heath Secretary, for a ‘private drink’ to discuss Mr Greensill’s idea of introducing a flexible scheme to pay doctors and nurses in the HNS.
In October last year the NHS announced that Earnd, a mobile app that was, at the time, a division of Greensill, would be available free-of-charge to NHS employees to access their pay.
Boris Johnson has now found himself having to order an enquiry following the collapse of Greensill Capital at the beginning of March. Greensill, which lent money to large businesses so that they could pay their suppliers, went into administration after insurers refused to renew contracts covering its loans.
Calls had mounted for an inquiry after it emerged Mr Cameron had privately lobbied ministers, including Chancellor Rishi Sunak to try to obtain access to hundreds of thousands of pounds of the Government’s Covid Corporate Financing Facility (CCFF) on behalf of Mr Greensill.
Downing Street said that the review would look into both “issues of supply chain finance and the role Greensill played” as well as the “way contracts were secured”. It has been suggested that this would include the lobbying by Mr Cameron on behalf of Greensill.
For his part, Mr Sunak has released his replies to Mr Cameron’s texts, which were sent in April 2020 to his private mobile. Mr Sunak said that he had pushed his officials to try and find ways of admitting Greensill into the Bank of England loan scheme. The contents of the Mr Cameron’s original texts are still to be released.
It as now emerged that two civil servants were hired by Greensill but continued to work in Whitehall.
Bill Crothers worked in Whitehall for eight years, including as the government’s chief commercial officer overseeing £40 bn of annual spending. Two months before leaving Whitehall, in November 2015, Mr Crothers began advising Greensill. He became a Greensill board member in August 2016, by 2019 his shareholding in was valued at $8m. The move was sanctioned by the Cabinet Office.
David Brierwood, a former Morgan Stanley banker was brought into David Cameron’s administration in 2014, the same year it is alleged Lex Greensill took on a similar role in government. Within months of joining the cabinet office, in October 2014, Mr Brierwood was recruited onto the board at Greensill.
It has now emerged, the man appointed by the prime minister to run the Greensill lobbying enquiry is on the board of Arbuthnot Banking Group, a private bank that has close ties with the Conservative party. Senior legal researcher at the campaign group Spotlight on Corruption, George Havenhand, questioned the appointment of Nigel Boardman: Mr Havenhand said: “We have serious concerns that the appointment of Nigel Boardman to lead the inquiry into the use of supply chain finance in government was done in haste and without appropriate assessment of political conflicts of interest whether perceived or actual”.
Labour’s Rachael Reed said: “Revelations like this keep growing the web of Greensill scandal and show us how much the Conservatives have weakened the measures meant to keep cronyism and conflicts of interest in government in check”.
From the top of the government down the pandemic has highlighted concerns that cronyism is rife across public life. Cronyism is the practice of appointing social and business contacts to positions of authority, regardless of their qualifications.
These latest revelations add to concerns around some government issued contracts relating to the Covid-19 pandemic. Contracts were awarded to dormant companies, or firms that have no history of PPE provision.
Examples include a contract for hand sanitiser worth £43.8m awarded to TAEG Energy, a company shown as dormant by Companies House. A contract for PPE worth £186m went to the UK logistics company Uniserve. Its owner is “listed as a speaker for the influential pro-Brexit lobby group Prosperity UK”. Aventis Solutions were awarded an £18.5m contract to supply face masks despite being an employment agency whose net assets total £322.
It is hoped that the enquiry will bring new rules to government to give clarity at the top. How cronyism at lower levels will be dealt with is another matter.