Published:

59 comments

During the last few years, ConservativeHome published a series of pieces by an author about a subject.  They were perfectly good articles in their own right.

It became clear to us after a while that the author had a double agenda.  The person in question had something interesting to say on the matter, and also hoped to advise the Government about it.  Nothing wrong with that.

When the Coronavirus pandemic first broke, last spring, our former author complained to the site.  He or she had offered help free to the Government. E-mails had been sent and phone calls made.  There had been no response.

This was disgraceful, we were told: Ministers and civil servants were asleep on the job.  Incompetence, unresponsiveness, idleness – etc.

This tale may be a serviceable introduction to the mass of stories swirling around the media about alleged Ministerial and governmental cronyism (claimed openly) and corruption (suggested covertly).

The most prominent are the appointments of Dido Harding as head of the NHS Test and Trace programme and Kate Bingham as Chair of the UK Vaccines Taskforce.

There is a cluster of others about appointments and contracts – the most striking of the latter being the £250 million PPE one awarded to a jewellry designer who is based in Florida.

A sign of the times is that our old friend the bloke in the kimono with the baseball bat and the dead fox is in court again or thereabouts, arguing that Harding’s appointment is in breach of (you guessed it) the Equality Act.

The best way of thinking one’s way into the issues is to start with the tale of our former contributor.  Come a crisis, a mass of such people come knocking on Westminster and Whitehall’s doors.

Some are public-spirited citizens who want to help.  Others are off on an ego trip.  Others still are both.  Some want nothing in return; others rather fancy an honour.

Some want to make a profit: nothing inherently wrong with that, either. Some have something to offer, others not much, others nothing at all.

And in modern times, there has been no crisis of the nature and on the scale as the Coronavirus.  It has skewered Ministers and departments on a Morton’s Fork.

The first prong is that of moving too slowly.  If government doesn’t get its finger out, and speed up the purchasing of vital equipment (for example), Ministers are accused of letting people die unnecessarily.

The second prong is that of moving too fast.  If government gets that move on instead, and rushes to buy that equipment, the peacetime equivalent of the fog of war engulfs Whitehall.

Ministers are consequently accused of ripping off the taxpayer.  Almost inevitably, Coronavirus has seen them charged with both.

The scramble for ventilators is a classic instance of government being pricked by both prongs; for these were first clamoured for as urgently required, and later denounced as over-hyped.

There is a parallel with Treasury support for the self-employed – since there are fewer means of assessing how much self-employed people are being paid

Policy Exchange has wrung an entire report out of public sector fraud during Covid-19, estimating some £4.6 million worth of it.

The Government’s problems will not have been helped by some of its usual suppliers complaining that bidders for contracts have not been restrained by normal procedures, which have been waived.

Meanwhile, Ministers and civil servants had to pick their way through the claims of those queueing up to offer help – with normal processes suspended and less scope for the undertaking of due diligence.

And inevitably, human nature comes into play.  One of its most primal impulses is that which ceaselessly urges: cover your back.

So Ministers find themselves searching for people they can trust: who won’t brief, leak, or resign in a fit of pique and sell their story.

Which brings us to Bingham and Harding.  On the one hand, we’re not impressed by the argument that neither have public sector experience, let alone in the fields to which they were appointed.

For the fact is that the institutional public sector, in the form of Public Health England, performed poorly during this crisis.

(The public sector’s structures are not to be confused with its people: in other words, with the doctors, nurses and other staff who have worked tirelessly, helped to reduce death rates, and saved lives.)

Meanwhile, it is the private sector that is rolling out the vaccines – and which must share the responsibility of ensuring that they work properly.

On the other, a selection process conducted in normal circumstances might well not have settled on the spouses of two Conservative MPs.

The question is whether it was reasonable for the appointments to have been made in those which are abnormal.  The same consideration applies to the purchase of PPE, the appointment of advisers – and so on.

All in all, we have a lot of sympathy for Ministers and civil servants who find themselves caught up in the no-win game of heads you lose; tails you lose.

At the same time, Downing Street has not exactly been a model of seamless efficiency since the general election – as Boris Johnson’s quest for a Chief of Staff effectively concedes.

These claims, counter-claims, disputation and controversy are a mass of waters that are surging downstream towards an outlet, in much the same way that a river winds its eventual way to the sea.

Eventually, the pandemic will recede – and it will be time for the inevitable inquiry.  The whole caboodle will be probed so that, as classic mandarin-speak would have it, “lessons can be learned”.

59 comments for: Nothing to see here – move along? Covid, procurement, appointments and cronyism claims

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.