Cronyism and fraud: how reality under Boris Johnson has pushed fiction aside in the end

Boris head in handsBy Simon Fletcher

A deputy mayor given suspended prison sentence and community service for fraud…Another appointee resigns from his Olympics post after breaching Financial Services Authority regulations over shareholdings…A deputy mayor forced out after allegations of impropriety and for lying about being a magistrate…The mayor embroiled in a row after seeking to appoint a personal political ally to the Arts Council, reportedly against the Nolan rules for appointments in public life…

Just imagine the fury-filled pages that would have dominated London’s Evening Standard under the editorship of Veronica Wadley if the mayor in question was Ken Livingstone, and consider how much of the rest of the media would have swung in behind to pursue these stories under those circumstances.

Yet the mayor in question is not Livingstone, during whose time as mayor no such serious events occurred, but Boris Johnson. And, in a glorious irony, one of the people involved in the latest of these cases is Wadley herself whom Boris Johnson is attempting to place at the head of the Arts Council for London.

It comes in the same week that Johnson’s former Deputy Mayor Ian Clement pleaded guilty to fraud, for which he has received a suspended prison sentence.

It is an indication of how the media cards are currently stacked in favour of the Tories that Johnson does not receive a rougher ride.

The Times reported this morning:

“Johnson has been accused of breaching rules on public appointments after trying to appoint a key ally to a top London arts job…

“The appointment was resisted by Liz Forgan, chairwoman of the Arts Council in England, who took part in the shortlisting process and has suggested the appointment was effectively cronyism. The ‘appointment is based on reasons other than selection of the best candidate for the post,’ she wrote in a letter to Mick Elliott, culture director at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. It has been blocked by the Government on the grounds that the process breached the Nolan rules, which prevent political interference in the public appointments process.”

From the end of 2007 through the whole of the first half of last year Wadley’s Standard waged a campaign to denigrate and smear Ken Livingstone’s administration in the minds of Londoners. It relentlessly operated on the principle that if it threw enough dirt, no matter how baseless, some of it would stick at least in the weeks until the election. It could not last much longer as it could not stand up to serious scrutiny. It was a huge abuse of media power.

Day after day for months the Standard devoted pages of copy and thousands of billboards to its onslaught. The Tory Assembly member Richard Barnes claimed there was a tide of corruption.

But Livingstone’s period in office in fact contrasts sharply with the actual, conceded, fraud of one of Boris Johnson’s senior Conservative appointments, the naked cronyism of his actions over Wadley, and his other disastrous errors of judgement in his senior appointments.

Despite the Standard’s activities, in Labour’s worst night in decades Ken Livingstone performed better in London than Labour nationally. Yet whilst the Standard’s campaign did not win it for Boris Johnson, that cannot justify its low tactics.

So counter-productive was the impact of Wadley’s leadership on the Standard that her replacement as editor launched an advertising campaign to say sorry on behalf of the paper for being negative and out of touch.

Now a balance sheet based on reality, rather than fiction and smears, can be drawn up.

There is the real and admitted fraud in the case of Ian Clement. Boris Johnson himself signed off Clement’s expense claims.

Then there is the resignation of Boris Johnson’s deputy Ray Lewis, caught lying to the media that he was a magistrate, and after allegations about his time as a clergyman.

Johnson’s appointee for the Olympic Games, Carphone Warehouse co-founder David Ross, was forced to resign from his responsibilities after admitting he had not informed National Express board members that he’d used his shares in the business as security for a multi-million pound loan.

Johnson became mired in a controversy over the way he tried to appoint his then planning adviser – now his de facto chief of staff – Simon Milton, and had to go back to square one.

Finally there is the series of other resignations of the mayor’s most senior appointees.

To all this we can now add the attempt to impose his friend and political backer Veronica Wadley on the Arts Council apparently against the Nolan rules for appointments in public life and despite her having, in the words of the chair of the panel making the appointment, “almost no arts credibility.”

It is striking that the editor of the newspaper that orchestrated a months-long campaign based on trumped-up charges of cronyism to smear the Labour mayor should now be exposed as an apparently willing beneficiary of something that looks very much like cronyism from her own candidate Boris Johnson.

The Evening Standard’s smear campaign against Ken Livingstone, under the editorship of Veronica Wadley, is destined to provide a text-book case of scurrilous gutter journalism. The case of Boris Johnson’s efforts to appoint her to a post for which the most eminent members of the appointment considered her unqualified just shows how a certain class consider they are above the rules that govern mere mortals.

There is one footnote to this week’s events. Boris Johnson is reported as digging in over Wadley’s appointment, saying that he may be prepared to sit it out until another – presumably more pliable – Secretary of State can drive the appointment through after the general election, assuming the Tories win. It is an interesting sign of how Johnson believes a Tory government would operate.

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