In 2004, he was sacked from the shadow Cabinet by the then Conservative party leader Michael Howard for dishonesty over an affair, while more recently former Conservative minister Rory Stewart described him as “the most accomplished liar in public life” and former Conservative attorney general Dominic Grieve called him a “vacuum of integrity”.
But whatever his failings, the Prime Minister is an astute politician and so he must at least suspect that the row over cronyism in the awarding of multi-million-pound Covid contracts is starting to gain traction following the resignation of Health Secretary Matt Hancock
The married Hancock’s ‘failure to observe social distancing’ with a married aide – one way of describing what happened – was the immediate cause of his downfall.
However, Hancock has even more serious questions to answer about his involvement in helping a friend, Alex Bourne – the former landlord of his local pub – to obtain a lucrative contract to supply test tubes for Covid tests. Hancock initially insisted he had “absolutely nothing to do with that contract”, but it subsequently emerged he had personally referred a plea for business by Bourne to a senior Health Department official.
Furthermore, leaked documents reportedly show that Hancock used a personal email account, rather than his departmental email address, when dealing with his private office, which leaves him open to accusations he was not communicating in a way that was transparent and open to scrutiny.
Scenting a bigger scandal, opposition politicians are circling. Labour MP Ian Murray said there were “big issues around the cronyism of PPE contracts”. “You were more likely to get a contract for PPE in the NHS if you knew Matthew Hancock... whether or not you could actually supply and were an expert in it,” he added.
However, claim and counter-claim between politicians is unlikely to reveal the truth about whether there was any actual wrong-doing or if decisions were made quickly and outside the usual channels but with integrity and in the public interest. Only an independent public inquiry into the handling of the Covid pandemic can do that.
Johnson has pledged to set one up next year but, as our economy opens up, his excuses for not acting more timeously are fast running out.