Words By Will Day
When Theresa May delivered her “Britain, the great meritocracy” speech in 2016, she outlined the Conservative’s commitment to creating a fairer society. The then Prime Minister claimed, “I want Britain to be the world’s great meritocracy – a country where everyone has a fair chance to go as far as their talent and their hard work will allow.”
No longer would the Conservative Party give preferential treatment to those in the upper echelons of society. Instead, Britain would finally provide equal opportunity regardless of background; going forward one thing and one thing only would determine success, hard work. Success would no longer be determined by who you know, it would only be what you know and how hard you’ve worked to earn it. Britain would now be a country where everyone played by the same rules.
Fast forward just a few years and the Conservatives are embroiled in a scandal that confirms what most of us already knew – meritocratic Britain existed rhetoric in only. Welcome to the Chumocracy.
As Covid-19 sent the nation into lockdown the government scrambled to procure vital equipment for the NHS. This led to a significant departure in the usual process for awarding contracts with a “high priority” channel established as the government looked to secure equipment quickly. Companies could gain access to this channel through a referral from a politician or senior official.
Companies given access to this channel were far more likely to secure contracts. In a report published by the National Audit Office (NAO), it was revealed that 1 in 10 companies that went through the high priority channel were awarded contracts compared to 1 in 100 companies not given high priority status.
The NAO report revealed that £18bn coronavirus–related contracts were awarded during the first six months of the pandemic, £10.5bn of which were awarded without competitive tenure. In many cases, the watchdog found paperwork that denoted why companies had been selected was missing and there were instances of contracts only being drawn up after work had already begun.
Obviously, this should all be caveated by the fact that this situation was one like no other – some may even go as far as calling it unprecedented. As the deadly virus began to tear through the nation, speed was of the essence. These were not usual times – adhering to usual practices would have slowed the process significantly and placed the NHS under further risk. With the advent of this high-priority lane, the government could quickly and efficiently award contracts to companies best suited to provide the NHS with the equipment so vital to avoid further catastrophe.
Naturally, one would assume that companies granted access to the high priority would be those with years of experience supplying medical equipment. The ones that hard work tirelessly to reach the top of their field and that were best placed to support the NHS at a time of immense pressure. You wouldn’t just give your mate from the pub with no prior experience a contract – right?
What transpired was a scandal that showed a complete disregard for the lives of so many Britons, shattering any illusions that the Conservatives have ever really cared about the meritocratic ideal.
Instead of identifying the best and most deserving many in the Conservative party sought to land their friends and associates a hefty payday.
A New York Times investigation into the 1200 government contracts made public, worth almost $22bn, found that $11bn went to companies run by friends or associates of the party or with no prior experience in providing medical equipment, or countries with a history of controversy. Around $5bn was awarded to companies with political connections to the party; some had former ministers or government advisors on their boards, while others had made donations to the party.
Whilst companies with political connections were fast-tracked through the VIP lanes, others, many of whom were vastly more experienced in supplying medical devices, got nowhere. Take the case of Multibrands International, ran by Rizwana Hussain. The British company, which had been producing PPE for China since the outbreak of the crisis, could provide the government with significant volumes PPE. However, without access to the VIP lane, Hussain spent months trying to contact the government through traditional channels without success.
The failure of experienced companies like Hussain’s to gain access to contracts makes the Tory’s ostensible commitment to merit seem laughable. Companies like Hussain’s should have been given access to the high priority lane, these companies not only deserved these contracts through prior hard work and experience but would have been most efficient in providing the NHS with vital equipment. Instead, by dolling out contracts to friends and donors alike the Tories wasted public funds and showed a callous disregard for public life.
Take Ayanda Capital, an investment firm whose senior advisor also advised for the Department for International Trade: for which Liz Truss is the minister. Due to their political connections, Ayanda Capital was awarded a contract to supply facemasks in a deal worth £155m. When the masks arrived, however, they did not match the current government requirements and were not able to be used for their original purpose. A waste of time and money that the public simply could not afford.
With experienced and well-equipped companies continually ignored by the government, the Conservatives have made a mockery of the principle they’ve so desperately tried to convince us they adhered to. The Covid-19 has merely exposed a bleak reality, hard work and application don’t define success, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. From the Tory councillor awarded a £156m contract despite their company experiencing significant losses, to a former employer of a Tory Baroness winning an otherwise unadvertised contract just seven weeks after establishing their company – cronyism has been firmly engrained into the pandemic. When the country so desperately needed the best and brightest, many in the Conservative Party instead saw an opportunity to reward their friends and donors.
Matt Hancock, the man who cares so dearly about the well-being of the nation that he openly wept (or at least really tried to) on national tv at the news of successful vaccinations. Now there’s a man who cares about the people. There’s no way he’d stand in front of the nation begging for us to obey the rules for our own safety whilst simultaneously endangering public lives by dishing out contracts to his vastly under-experienced mates – right?
In the toughest period for the country in a generation, Hancock has seized the opportunity to give his mates a generous payday. Alex Bourne, a former neighbour of Hancock and pub landlord in the minister’s constituency was awarded government contracts to supply the NHS with tens of millions of vials for NHS Covid-19 test kits in a deal worth roughly £30m.
Bourne had no prior experience in the production of medical supplies – at the time of the contract being awarded his company was supplying the catering industry with plastic cups and takeaway boxes. Perhaps the most striking indicator of the staggering cronyism here is that Bourne landed this lucrative was via Whatsapp message. While Bourne’s lawyers have denied having a close relationship with Hancock, a close associate of Bourne has described the pair as “buddies”, claiming Hancock to be a regular in Bourne’s pub.
There can be no doubt that the awarding of this contract was not due to merit. Bourne was not awarded this deal through hard work or competence in the field. Instead, public funds have been entrusted to an underqualified company due to its owner’s friendship with Hancock and maybe the odd free pint.
Staggeringly this isn’t even the only cronyism-related scandal involving Hancock. A firm with direct connections to Hancock secured a PPE contract worth £14.4m. In recently published documents, the government revealed that a contract for isolation gowns was awarded to CH&L Limited last April. The company, which has no website, claims to a supplier of “human health activities” and is currently run by Frances Stanley. Stanley is a director of Newmarket Racecourse, located in Hancock’s constituency, and in 2019, her husband donated £5000 directly to Hancock’s office.
It appears then that when Hancock heard Theresa May state, “I want everyone to have a fair chance” he interpreted that as everyone in his phonebook.
As the country has faced its biggest crisis in a generation, the Conservatives have shown their hand. Their commitment to a meritocratic Britain was a misdirection, one that tried to convince the working class that success was possible, if only they put in a bit of hard work. Instead, it seems, if you want to be successful in Britain, getting Matt Hancock’s number is the best place to start.