Most people in Britain were brought up in a country that offered the faint hope of justice. The police would investigate corruption, if only occasionally. Politicians would dodge and weave but avoid flat-out lies. Political parties had moral standards, however flexible, and if a minister disgraced himself or herself they could resign. Opposition politicians, journalists, satirists, charities and alliances of concerned citizens worked on the assumption that if they exposed wrongdoing there was a chance it would stop.
I don’t wish to romanticise the past. My small point is that we have not always been as shamefully governed as we are governed today. Countries change and not always for the better. Corruptions of public life in Britain that were once challenged now pass unpunished. The old codes that restrained the powerful have proved useless against politicians who say: “We can break them and no one can stop us.” Boris Johnson’s administration now lies as a matter of policy and a matter of course.
Do I hear you say that all politicians lie? Not like members of this government they don’t. Today’s ministers do not just avoid the question. They lie outright, loud and proud. To confine myself to the past week, ministers said the electorate “settled the argument” about a no-deal Brexit in the 2016 referendum and the 2019 general election. The record shows Leavers promised voters “the easiest deal in human history” in 2016 and an “oven-ready” deal in 2019. They were still telling the Leave voters they cozened that we should be able to enjoy the benefits of being in the EU after leaving. If there is chaos at the ports and job losses, it will be because the EU willed suffering on us as a punishment, rather than because Boris Johnson foisted a hard Brexit on his country, with predictable and inevitable consequences.
It may seem like a lost age, but not so long ago allegations of corruption warranted police investigations. In 2006, a Scottish Nationalist MP alleged Labour was selling peerages in return for political donations. The Met questioned Labour fundraisers and ministers in Tony Blair’s government, up to and including Blair. What makes the past seem almost rosy is the sequel. The Crown Prosecution Service said there was not enough evidence to prosecute. Labour did not turn on the Metropolitan police and force its chief commissioner out. Blair did not claim that the police were pursuing a political vendetta. He and his government took the investigation on the chin and accepted scrutiny as the price of governing in a democracy.
The police have prima facie grounds this weekend to investigate the billions in Covid contracts this government has sluiced out of the Treasury to friends and allies. Cronyism wasn’t a small error of judgment. It was such an accepted part of the spending splurge that the National Audit Office found civil servants had established a VIP fast-lane “to assess and process potential PPE leads referred by government officials, ministers’ offices, MPs and Lords, senior NHS staff and other health professionals”.
If Cressida Dick, commissioner of the Met, and Lynne Owens, director general of the National Crime Agency, were to investigate, they would do so in the knowledge that the Johnson administration menaces everyone who holds it to account. The Electoral Commission investigates allegations against Vote Leave and Conservative MPs. The government proposes to abolish it. The Supreme Court rules that Johnson cannot arbitrarily suspend parliament. The government proposes curtailing its powers.
You can guess how a police investigation would be dealt with. Tory newspapers and websites – probably the Telegraph and Guido – would look for the smallest piece of dirt to smear Dicks and Owens as Remainers or liberals. The courtier intellectuals at Policy Exchange would develop strategies to stop the “activist” police officers pursuing “political prosecutions”. Ministers would endorse them and before you knew it the police would be under attack. Even if they want to investigate, the police must have noticed that the Priti Patel case ended with the guilty minister staying in her job while the honourable investigator resigned.
Do you still think nothing has changed? Let’s see what else I have. Staying with last week, governments once believed manifesto promises were sacrosanct. On Wednesday, the Conservatives tore up their manifesto promise on international aid.
When Labour was in power, journalists deplored its reliance on spin. Johnson wrote in 2006 that Blair was “luxuriating in power, while all 3,000-odd government spin doctors… squander untold millions burnishing his image”. (It wasn’t true but back then no one thought it worth their time exposing Johnson. Britain might not be in such a squalid state if we had.)
Last week, the Open Democracy website revealed a government led by Johnson, the enemy of spin, had set up an “Orwellian” unit to obstruct the release of sensitive information requested by the public under the Freedom of Information Act and to compile blacklists of journalists.
In 2014, Ed Miliband forgot to mention the deficit in his conference speech. Johnson seized on the “Freudian slip” as proof Labour was unfit to govern. Last week, his chancellor, Rishi Sunak, issued a spending review and did not mention Brexit once, which certainly showed he was unfit to govern, The media did not pile into Sunak’s “Freudian slip” as they piled in on Miliband and not only because of pro-Tory bias.
Time is on the side of authoritarian rulers. The Tories know that, however furious the cries of anger, they have an 80-seat majority and the next election won’t be for years. The scandal will fade. They will endure.
I am not about to offer false optimism. People once believed the way they could win change was by shaming the double standards of rulers hiding behind masks of virtue. Now there are no easy ways of coping with rulers who have no shame, who feel no need to pretend to be virtuous because they can govern with impunity. The only answer is to tell yourself to keep pounding away in the faint hope that a kind of justice will come years from now. I accept this isn’t the most rousing of slogans.
• Nick Cohen is an Observer columnist