The origin of the phrase ‘Bob’s your uncle’ is unclear, but it is believed to have arisen after the Marquess of Salisbury, then Prime Minister, appointed his nephew Arthur Balfour as chief secretary for Ireland in 1887.
The concept of ‘it’s not what you know but who you know’ did not begin in the spring of 2020. Connections in politics have always been worth a fortune, for protégés eager to climb the greasy pole or businesses people hoping to make a quick buck off the Treasury. But during a pandemic, where parliamentary scrutiny was weak, it can be especially ugly.
Internal documents disclosed in a legal challenge by the Good Law Project on the award of contracts for personal protective equipment (PPE) reveal that so-called VIP lanes — provided to those with contacts to ministers and Conservative MPs — had a “knock on effect for the remaining offers of help”.
Indeed, civil servants say they were “drowning” in offers from those with government connections. These emails back up what many were saying at the time. That while genuine experts waited months on end to hear back on their offers for help, those who zoomed in the right circles were able to make hundreds of millions of pounds.
This echoes a report by the National Audit Office last November, which revealed that suppliers invited to use the VIP “high-priority” lane were 10 times more likely to be successful. The NAO also found numerous cases of inadequate documentation on how the risks of procuring suppliers without competition had been mitigated.
Greensill’s access to the heart of government was extraordinary, and leaks of Boris Johnson’s texts have been titillating. That saga now needs to be seen in this context: huge sums of money being exchanged for sometimes unusable PPE, with apparently little or no scrutiny over the procurement process. Spring 2020 was a terrifying time.
Ministers had to work at pace to provide our health and social care staff with urgent protection. But a crisis must never be an open invitation, nor does it ever provide an excuse to play fast and loose with taxpayers’ money. The ministers responsible for these decisions need to be held to account.