Naughty cabinet

Photo by TotalPolitics.

— 3 minute read — By Joe Clark

The global COVID-19 pandemic has plunged politics around the world into turmoil, and nowhere is that better evidenced than in the UK. MPs and government ministers are constantly having to make decisions to support a plummeting economy, millions of citizens who are struggling to find work, and a health system which has been relentlessly strained since COVID-19 cases began to surge across the country in early March 2020.

The behaviour of politicians during this period has been scrutinised by the UK public more than ever. Whilst most citizens would accept that it is often correct to postponement judgement on politician’s actions during this time, given the unpredictability of the problems that the country is currently facing, there have been some occasions where people have found it hard to be so easily forgiving of MPs’ and ministers’ behaviour.

Most recently, Matt Hancock’s alleged mis-handling of the government’s COVID-19 contracts and the news that there will be further reviews held into Priti Patel’s supposed bullying of civil servants are the two sagas which have most worried and angered the public. These developments are handed even further significance when it is noted that Hancock and Patel fulfil two of the most fundamental roles in the UK government: Hancock is Health Secretary and Patel is Home Secretary. 

In mid-February, Matt Hancock was found to have acted unlawfully by failing to publish COVID-19 government contracts within the 30-day period required by law. The judge for the case, Mr Justice Chamberlain, stated that Hancock’s failure to publish the contracts in the allotted period meant there was a lack of transparency over the way in which taxpayers’ money was being used. Procurement consultancy firm, Tussell, has found that Hancock’s Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) had spent approximately £15 billion buying PPE by the beginning of October, but only £2.68 billion worth of contracts had been published – the staggering amounts of taxpayers’ money which were and still are being spent on these contracts serve to emphasise the significance of these investigations.

The Good Law Project (GLP), a crowd-funded not-for-profit, has asked the DHSC to publish all outstanding contracts and the names of companies who were dealt with, after Hancock was accused of cronyism. He was said to be giving contracts to companies owned by his friends. The government has refused repeated requests to publish this list of companies, and the DHSC has denied that that it was never their intention not to publish the contracts within the 30-day period. When quizzed about the issue, Hancock has been somewhat unapologetic, stating that it was more important to prioritise getting equipment and saving lives than to get the timings right on transparency returns.

Keir Starmer, Leader of the Labour Party, stated that although he does believe that Hancock is ‘wrong about the contracts’, he does want all of the government minister’s focus to be on ‘getting us through’. Elsewhere, there have been other calls from MPs for Prime Minister Boris Johnson to sack his Health Secretary, and even for Hancock to resign himself, although both have adamantly refused to do either.

Allegations surrounding Priti Patel’s potential bullying of civil servants began circulating towards the back-end of last year. Such allegations returned to the forefront of political discussions across the UK last month after it was confirmed that a union representing civil servants (the FDA Union) will be launching a judicial review into the allegations in an attempt to ‘overturn’ Boris Johnson’s original ruling that Patel did not breach the ministerial code. Sir Alex Allan, who produced the original report into Patel’s behaviour, found evidence that she had bullied her colleagues and had not always treated civil servants with ‘consideration and respect’. The summary of findings did also include information on occasions where Patel was said to have been shouting and swearing at such civil servants. However, Johnson determined that the ministerial code had not been breached, and as he is the prime minister and thus the ultimate arbiter of the code, the case was considered closed.

Dave Penman, the leader of the FDA Union, accepts that the decision as to whether Patel should resign is unimportant, but insists that it is vital to run another review into her behaviour so that the prime minister overturns his statement that she did not breach ministerial code. Penman worries that if Johnson does not change his stance, there is a risk that other government ministers may partake in similar behaviour to the kind that the Home Secretary is accused of. Patel apologised for her actions last year, stating that she was ‘sorry that my behaviour in the past had upset people’, but claimed that it had not been her intention to do so. 

With rumours around Hancock’s cronyism still circulating and the upcoming review into Patel’s behaviour expected in the near future, it would be naive to think that either of these sagas involving two high-profile government ministers is over. Questions still remain over how both situations will affect the reputations and positions of both individuals, and the knock-on effect that this could have on the UK government as a whole. It will certainly be intriguing to see whether either saga has a considerable effect on shaping the atmosphere and discussions surrounding UK politics over the coming months.