In among the various examples of David Cameron being a pillock in her hugely entertaining diaries, which caused a minor furore a few weeks back, the otherwise spectacularly un self-aware Sasha Swire made one hugely telling and perceptive point, described here in Rachel Cooke's excellent Guardian interview
Following a Downing Street Christmas party in 2011, for instance, she notes that the closeness of Cameron’s circle is “unprecedented… a very particular, narrow tribe of Britain and their hangers-on”. It’s “enough to repulse the ordinary man"
This sense of Government by chumocracy was one of the less edifying aspects of the already pretty ropy Cameron years. An idea of a few good pals lording it up at each other's houses and doing a spot of Governing when it suited them haunted the back of a fag packet policies of that intellectually threadbare period (in the book, Dave boasts of "winning a war" in Libya, conflating it with the great day he's just had on the beach in Cornwall - remind me how that one turned out, Dave?), from the ill-thought through ideologies of Austerity, to the monstrous narcissism of the Brexit vote, I suspect that the only reason that the Cameron years don't receive the opprobrium heaped on them that they fully deserve is that things since have, incredibly, got worse.
(as a side note, one of their less heralded atrocities, Michael Gove's complete evisceration of the education system, is having its aftereffects played out now, as its complete reliance on exams comes up against the realities of a pandemic and HMG tries to pretend that northern students are receiving exactly the same education as southern ones, my son's school's had three years sent home for a lack of teachers)
But one thing which emphatically hasn't changed is that we are still being governed by a tiny number of people, and it's proving to be a less and less viable proposition. I don't propose to go into the multiple failures of the Johnson administration, but it is painfully apparent that the smaller the cadre of people running the show (and it really is just BJ and his cadre of Vote Leave loyalists holed up in the bunker at the minute: Hancock's been hung out to dry, Sunak's keeping his gob shut) the less flexible, the less able to manoeuvre they are. Hence the absolute shambles surrounding free school meals, the intransigence over a lockdown, Rashford's idea, Starmer's idea (it wasn't, but it was a pretty obvious trap set that they walked right into). Paralysed with fear at appearing to give in, they do nothing, because there's no one left around to say "hang on, this might be a good idea". Considering Dominic Cummings' obsession with superforecasting, he seems remarkably unable to predict the events of the next ten minutes, let alone a viable roadmap out a pandemic.
But one thing that they can, and will do, is funnel money to their mates, and this is where having only a few people at the top as a model comes in handy. As a method of governing a country it's absolute garbage, but as a way of ripping off a few hundred million it's absolutely peerless.
You're aware of the disaster that has been Track and Trace, 12 billion quid of public money handed over to a private company run by the brother of a Tory peer, and presided over by another Tory peer with zero experience in public healthcare. You might think that bears investigating, it won't, of course, because the MP in charge of investigating impropriety is Dido Harding's husband. It saves time, I suppose.
But it goes so much further than that, you have also doubtless heard of contracts worth hundreds of millions of pounds for PPE that didn't work being awarded to friends of ministers, old associates of peers, and all of this has, indeed happened. What is new, however, is the extent to which it has been enabled by the Cabinet Office themselves. New documents leaked to The Good Law Project reveal a process where "preferred vendors" and "VIPs" are walked step by step through the procurement process, with no Parliamentary oversight. They show price gouging on a massive scale, with contracts only being questioned if they charge more than 25% over the market rate.
We've all got one mate who perpetually tries to game the system, the one forever in pursuit of the big break, the eye to the main chance. The one who, if they'd just got a boring old job twenty years ago, would be much better off than they are now. Well, this is what we have in Government now, a bunch of grifters. A group of people who, when confronted with a crisis don't say "how can I make this better?", they say "how can I turn this to my advantage?"
The title of this blog is "Exceptionalism" and that's not really something I've talked about so far. I don't think it's necessary to, the exceptionalism of Cameron, and then Johnson (though not May who, while a pretty unqualified disaster as PM, does seem to have a semblance of a moral compass) has shone through in their every word, thought and deed. The idea that because it's them doing it, it's fine.
This looting of the public purse which is currently underway though, is one of the most glaring examples of exceptionalism yet, however. Because, were we to hear of this happening in any other country, this systematic, shameless transfer of funds from public hands to a few wealthy individuals, we would call it by its true names. Corruption. Theft. Fraud. But because it's Britain, that's simply the way we do things here, old chap.