The lobbying scandal surrounding the Government shows no signs of abating, with the latest news being that vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi has shares in a company given more than £1 million in government contracts during the Covid pandemic. Labour has been on the attack, accusing the Tories of “sleaze” as much as possible.
Over the weekend both Rachel Reeves, Shadow Cabinet Office Minister, and Steve Reed, Labour’s Shadow Communities Secretary, were doing the media rounds, apparently in competition with each other as to who could use “sleaze” the most dramatically in a sentence. “Tory sleaze is back and it’s bigger than ever”, was Reeves’ line. “The era of Tory sleaze is well and truly back“, was Reed’s.
And so you can guess what word Keir Starmer used at PMQs yesterday. In fact, he said “sleaze” three times in a row, in a moment reminiscent of when in the 90s Tony Blair accused John Major of being “weak, weak, weak!”
"I don't want any stone to go unturned in these investigations"#Marr asks Shadow Cabinet Office Minister Rachel Reeves if sleaze is a problem for Labour and the Conservativeshttps://t.co/kyGQeIOSUO pic.twitter.com/whREWuBHjL
— BBC Politics (@BBCPolitics) April 18, 2021
Whatever one thinks of the ongoing lobbying saga (and my own view is that it needs to be thoroughly thrashed out, although voters will be more sympathetic to some events than others – such as the PM texting James Dyson for emergency ventilators), Labour should be careful, to say the least, when it accuses the Government of cosying up to private enterprise. Its record on this is far from perfect.
In February this year, for instance, it was reported that Starmer has turned to Peter Mandelson for advice on how to better the party’s prospects at a general election. He has reportedly “offered advice on Brexit and how to woo big business” and they have “struck up a close working relationship”. This is the same Mandelson who’s Chairman of Global Counsel, a firm that has worked for clients in the gambling, banking, commodity trading and packaging industries.
Then there’s Starmer’s current team. David Evans, Labour’s General Secretary and one of the Labour leader’s closest allies, is head of The Campaign Consultancy. Over the weekend The Mail on Sunday revealed that it had won a series of taxpayer contracts advertised as being worth nearly £200,000 from Croydon Council, when his ex-lover and the mother of his child was deputy leader.
Lord Falconer, the Shadow Attorney General, is a partner at Gibson Dunn, which has offered advice on “political lobbying” in the UK; and Lord Myners, a peer and former minister in Gordon Brown’s government, is Chair of the PR giant Edelman and according to The Guardian had “secretly explored a potentially lucrative board-level role at Greensill Capital after publicly raising concerns about the now-defunct lender”. John Healey, Labour’s Shadow Defence Secretary, also lobbied the Business Secretary, asking him to give Greensill greater access to the Coronavirus Large Business Interruption Loan Scheme “without delay“.
In short, we can go on and on in regards to these examples – so Labour needs to be careful about what accusations it levels at the Government. There will also be other things lodged in voters’ minds, such as the parliamentary expenses scandal in 2009, in which Jacqui Smith claimed 88p for a bath plug on the additional costs allowance, and John Reid claimed £2,387 on a bathroom suite from Homebase with a “black glitter toilet” seat, as well as what was termed “smeargate”.
Perhaps the most sensible line for Labour to take around lobbying is that the whole system needs a clean up. But as usual the party has reverted to playground politics, believing that repeatedly using the word “sleaze” will somehow hypnotise voters into realising they want to vote Labour. Actually it just reminds a lot of people that Labour hasn’t moved on from the Corbyn/ pre-Brexit era in which MPs seemed to think insulting the opposition was the way to succeed.
The truth is that Labour isn’t landing any serious blows on the Conservatives, which is particularly interesting given the lobbying story dominating the news. I say “interesting”, but it’s a pitiful indictment on our opposition. Criticism matters, but without vision, it can look weak, weak, weak.