Johnson’s legacy: Corruption and anti-corruption under Boris Johnson

In the second installment of our series on Boris Johnson’s legacy, Professor of Anti-Corruption Practice Robert Barrington examines the good, the bad, and the ugly of the Johnson administration’s record on the fight against corruption and highlights some areas to keep an eye on in order to assess the direction of Liz Truss’s leadership in this sphere.

U.S. State Department photo/ Public Domain

Six years ago, the UK was aspiring to be a world leader in the global fight against corruption. David Cameron’s Anti-Corruption Summit, convened just a few weeks before the Brexit vote, was high on aspiration and ambition. Forty-odd countries produced around 650 pledges, and the UK and US were acknowledged and praised for taking a leadership role.

With much to distract it, the momentum was lost under Theresa May’s government, though the rhetoric and commitment remained. Progress was limited, but the position looked recoverable with a suitable injection of energy and political will.

So, what of the Johnson years?  Regrettably, it’s not a pretty picture. Any sense of leadership in the wider world has been lost. Britain itself looks tainted and hypocritical, and all this has happened with the world watching open-mouthed.

Here are five things that went wrong:

1. Covid procurement and chumocracy. The catchy word chumocracy was coined early in the Johnson administration to describe the penchant for appointing political allies and ‘cronies’ to public positions, ministerial posts and the House of Lords. It started to look more distinctly corrupt around Covid procurement: the rules were suspended, contracts were awarded to Conservative Party donors and those with links to government, and fortunes were made – even when the equipment delivered was unusable or of poor quality. Investigations and Inquiries may reveal whether it was truly corrupt: for now, it bears all the hallmarks of corruption, and so needs to be disproven.

2. Standards in public life. In the end, even the Prime Minister’s Anti-Corruption Champion resigned, following in the footsteps of two independent Ethics Advisers. The multiple breaches of the Nolan Principles are well documented elsewhere. Overseas observers were generally shocked to see this in UK; some rejoiced that it confirmed what they had been saying for years. Either way, it did Britain no favours.

3. The abolition of DFID. Irrespective of the political or economic logic for abolishing DFID, it had established a reputation for leadership on anti-corruption policies and programming. Savage budget cuts and a notable de-prioritisation of corruption as an issue have meant that the FCDO is seen to have diminished rather than maintained that reputation.

4. Johnson’s performance at the Summit for Democracy. President Biden had laid on a sort-of successor to the 2016 Anti-Corruption Summit. The Prime Minister was invited to speak, and it was a golden opportunity for a re-positioning of the UK as being at the heart of these issues, after some understandably lost years. Sadly, it was more like his infamous Peppa Pig speech at the CBI conference: tone deaf to the occasion, lacking in substance and responding to the world’s needs and expectations with rhetorical flourishes and platitudes.

5. Post-Brexit procurement reforms. Another golden opportunity, which started with good intent to create a world-leading system that would deter corruption in one of the highest-risk areas of government, and prevent companies with a track record of corruption from holding UK public contracts. Then came the lobbying, the watering down and the delays. And so far, no new law at all, good or bad.

But surely something positive must have been done to tackle the corruption that Cameron and May declared was a key aspect of improving national security and prosperity? There was still the well-respected civil service team in the Joint Anti-Corruption Unit, and a Champion (until he resigned).  And indeed, there were a few positives – for example:

  • The work of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee continued in spite of the Johnson government, and did a superb job in highlighting the UK’s role in facilitating grand corruption and kleptocracy, and the threat that posed to the country.
  • As the Ukraine invasion increased the pressure to do something about Russian money in the UK, the Economic Crime Act was passed. This included the requirement to register the beneficial owners of property owned by overseas companies, which had been promised in 2016; and some improvement to Unexplained Wealth Orders.
  • The UK’s commitment to public registers of beneficial ownership was a message that was further promoted around the world, with some success.

The Johnson legacy will be hard to recover from on the global stage. But there are a number of things the Truss government could do to improve things. There is no sense so far that these are a priority, although there is a glimmer of hope that the new Security Minister, in whose brief these things fall, had shown understanding and commitment in his role as Chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee.

Here are some tests by which we can assess Prime Minister Truss on her own leadership in this area:

  • The speed of the delivery of the UK’s new Anti-Corruption strategy – due in December 2022 – and its strength will be an early indication of the Truss government’s commitment to anti-corruption domestically.
  • It is worth keeping an eye on the second Economic Crime Bill in order to assess whether its ambition matches the scale of the problem.
  • The Committee on Standards in Public Life’s Standards Matter recommendations should be adopted wholesale. Indeed, they should probably be strengthened given that, since their formulation, the Johnson government bequeathed a greater insight into how the system of checks and balances for public standards can be evaded.
  • You can have all the laws in the world, but will likely make no progress without law enforcement resourcing. Experts estimate that the resources for key agencies like the SFO and the NCA’s anti-corruption unit need to be at least doubled.
  • When, or if, the government appoints an Ethics Adviser and Anti-Corruption Champion, and who they are, will give considerable insight into the government’s approach.

We need just look across the Atlantic to see how damaging a negative reputation for corruption can be to a country’s international standing and strategic relationships.  It is not a legacy to be proud of; but the new Prime Minister can make decisions which will help to repair some of the damage.

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