Politics

All the scandals the new UK Cabinet would rather everyone forgot

Rishi Sunak is a forgiving guy but his new Cabinet show just how low UK politics has sunk.

The new Cabinet, same as the old Cabinet. Newly appointed Prime Minister Rishi Sunak holds his first Cabinet meeting the morning after assuming office. 10 Downing Street. Picture by Simon Walker / No 10 Downing Street

Hours after Rishi Sunak stood outside Downing Street and promised the nation a government with “integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level”, we’re getting a hint of what that government might look like as he appoints his Cabinet.

It’s mostly familiar faces, with some moving jobs and others getting old jobs back. Suella Braverman has returned barely a week after being sacked for breaking the ministerial code. Dominic Raab is back.

In fact, all of those appointed so far held previous posts among the sitcom-esque psychodrama of the Boris Johnson years and a few have barely cleaned themselves off after the last scandal which landed them in very hot water.

Dominic Raab – Deputy prime minister and justice secretary

The Bill of Rights Bill is back, baby! Well, maybe. Raab’s flagship policy looked to be dead and buried when Truss took office and sacked him as justice secretary all of six weeks ago. But following his sabbatical, human rights campaigners have their head in their hands at the prospect his widely-condemned proposal to allow UK courts to ignore rulings from the European Court of Human Rights could return.

Raab was also accused of being “missing in action” when he was away on holiday during the fall of Kabul in August 2021. It’s worth pointing out he was foreign secretary at the time. He did eventually return, saying he and his department had been surprised by the “scale and pace” of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan.

Oh, and another Raab howler from his last stint as justice secretary. Following Sarah Everard’s murder and the focus on violence against women, he rejected the idea misogyny should be a hate crime, though he did add that misogyny is wrong “whether it’s a man against a woman or a woman against a man”.

Suella Braverman – Home secretary

It’s been less than a week since Braverman was asked to resign (read: sacked) as home secretary for breaching the ministerial code by sharing an official document from her personal email address. The feeling was it had been coming for a while, she could barely pass a day under Liz Truss without going rogue and declaring her own policies at odds with the PM. Now she’s back. Because who needs national security and collective responsibility anyway?

During her time as home secretary, the Big Issue also revealed that Braverman’s claims to have “contributed” to a legal to a textbook had been rubbished by the book’s author.

The book’s author, Philip Kolvin KC, told the Big Issue Braverman “did not make a written or editorial contribution to the book”.

Kolvin added: “However on one occasion I asked her to do some photocopying for the book, which she did.”

Braverman requested the profile be taken down from the website where it was hosted, but did not respond to questions about the inconsistency. She has so far given no explanation.

Grant Shapps – Business secretary

Michael Green isn’t a name most people will be familiar with – unless they’re fans of the Grant Shapps back catalogue.

In 2015, Shapps admitted he had been going by the name Michael Green to sell what were essentially get-rich-quick schemes.

Hopefully the new business secretary will be able to spread some of the wisdom.

Michael Gove – Housing secretary

Michael Gove has been in the public eye for long enough to have picked up a couple of shiners and keep fighting on.

The former education, justice, environment and housing secretary returns to his post after being unceremoniously sacked by Boris Johnson in the summer, the latest blow landed in the years-long rivalry between the pair.

Aside from that, Gove is perhaps best known for enjoying himself, sometimes on parliamentary property, sometimes on the dancefloors of (checks notes) Aberdeen’s hottest student night clubs.

Who can forget the footage from summer 2021 when he turned up alone at Bohemia, favoured by the Granite City’s young folk, and proceeded to dance like a dad possessed?

Nadhim Zahawi – Conservative Party chair

Zahawi was praised for his handling of the vaccine rollout at the height of the pandemic but that doesn’t cover up some of his past.

The founder of YouGov is worth well over £100million and his sizable wealth was considered a matter of interest for HM Revenue & Customs. The matter was even flagged to then-prime minister Boris Johnson before Zahawi was made chancellor, but the issue was ignored.

Going back a little further, the multi-millionaire was shown up by the Mirror in 2013 after he submitted expenses for nearly £6,000… to pay for electricity in his stables.

Sunak would also be forgiven for listening for the sound of sharpening knives whenever passing the Conservative Party chair’s office. He was appointed chancellor by Boris Johnson after Sunak resigned the post in July — only to call for the PM to resign after a matter of days.

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Ben Wallace – Defence secretary

As defence secretary, Ben Wallace’s time is taken up being alert to the threat posed by Russia.

The Ukraine war is a modern conflict, fought in proxy on many fronts: on the battlefield, in the energy markets, and digitally.

It’s reassuring, then, that in March a pair of hoaxers reportedly linked to Russian security services managed to get on a call with Wallace by posing as Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

“Things must be going so badly for the Kremlin that they are now resorting to pranks and video fakes,” Wallace tweeted afterwards.

Gillian Keegan – Education secretary

Gillian Keegan has risen swiftly through the party ranks since she became an MP in 2017 and has taken to ratcheting up criticism with aplomb.

Most recently, Keegan was the latest Conservative to be accused of cronyism after her husband’s business received government contracts worth £24million pounds over the pandemic. Both parties denied any wrongdoing, of course.

Then In February 2022, she was widely criticised for having in-person meetings with bereaved parents despite testing positive for Covid. You might think that would be reason enough for a health minister, no less, to resign, but this was during Johnson’s tenure, so an apology was deemed enough.

Before that she was an education minister for apprenticeships and skills, her first job in government. It was surprising, then, that when the country’s youth were nervously accepting their pandemic-tainted exam results in the summer of 2020 and wondering where to go next, Keegan was nowhere to be found. 

Unless you checked her Instagram, which revealed she was in fact having a whale of a time on holiday in France. She wasn’t responsible, she said, implicitly pinning the blame back on then-education secretary, Gavin Williamson.

Speaking of which…

Gavin Williamson – Cabinet minister without portfolio

The former chief whip who kept a tarantula and a literal bull whip on his desk just keeps failing upwards. 

He was sacked as defence secretary under Theresa May after he was accused of leaking national security information related to Chinese firm Huawei’s role in the UK’s 5G network.

Undeterred, he returned to Cabinet as education secretary under Boris Johnson and oversaw an exams fiasco which could tarnish the futures of an entire generation of children. After cancelling all exams due to the pandemic, he oversaw a standardisation process which downgraded A-Level results for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and rewarded those from more privileged areas, causing uproar, widespread protests and more than a few tears.

The whole idea was ditched in a spectacular government U-turn but Williamson hung on for another year, despite repeated calls to resign, before he was booted out in a reshuffle.

Michelle Donelan – Culture secretary

Another one for the convenient list of contracts awarded during the pandemic, Michelle Donelan’s partner Tom Turner did rather well over Covid.

His firm teamed up with another, Mitie, in March 2021 to deliver PPE to the government, a contract that ended up being worth more than £360million.

Doneland denied any wrongdoing and the Cabinet Office dismissed the story. How could there be a conflict of interest when Donelan was an education minister and the contracts were awarded by the department for health?

Kemi Badenoch – Trade secretary

Cast your mind’s eye back to January 2021, when the pandemic was raging, the vaccine rollout had begun proper, and Kemi Badenoch was both a Treasury minister and equalities minister.

HuffPost journalist Nadine White had been told that Badenoch had refused to take part in a video promoting the vaccine so emailed the Treasury office to ask why.

Rather than respond to the email, Badenoch took screenshots and wrote an eight-part Twitter thread accusing White of bullying, disinformation and being “creepy and bizarre”, an act which opened the floodgates for online abuse directed at White until she made her account private.

Badenoch has made other efforts to appear. During the race to replace Boris Johnson as Conservatie leader she claimed to “know what it’s like flipping burgers at 16, on minimum wage, and then watching my pay slip away to taxes”.

Except Badenoch was 16 in 1996 and minimum wage was introduced in 1999, by Tony Blair’s Labour government. And that’s ignoring how she would have hit the minimum income to start paying tax working a low-wage, part-time job.

Thérèse Coffey – Environment secretary

While not one for shouting down journalists or outwardly breaching the ministerial code, new environment secretary Thérèse Coffey can be more than a little gaffe-prone and tone-deaf. 

As health secretary, she came under fire for planning to allow people to get antibiotics without a prescription, which risks germs becoming more resistant, and then admitted giving her leftover antibiotics to a friend, which is illegal.

And here’s a quick round up of her time as work and pensions secretary:

  • Calling food banks a “perfect way” to support people in poverty rather than give them meaningful support
  • Shouting down Marcus Rashford for calling attention to families in poverty (and then deleting her tweet)
  • Misunderstanding how universal credit works by encouraging recipients to work two more hours to make up for cuts
  • Refusing to release reports into deaths as a result of benefit cuts
  • Claiming £200,000 in expenses while cutting benefits
  • Allegedly hosting karaoke parties among the halls of the department for work and pensions.

Chris Heaton-Harris – Northern Ireland secretary

A former chair of ultra-Eurosceptic European research Group, Heaton-Harris got in a spot of bother as a Brexit minister for meeting with Spain’s far-right Vox party.

Vox has developed a reputation for being against feminism, LGBTQ+ rights and Muslims but very much in favour of guns and in 2019 Heaton-Harris met with the party’s general secretary in Westminster’s Portcullis House. 

OpenDemocracy says the pair discussed Brexit, which would be in breach of the ministerial code if it was not publicly declared afterwards. It was not, and Heaton-Harris resigned a month later in protest at Theresa May’s handling of Brexit.

The Department for Exiting the European Union said Heaton-Harris “did not meet representatives of Vox in a ministerial capacity”, in response to a request from openDemocracy.

So just in a personal capacity then.

Mark Harper – Transport secretary

New Transport Secretary Mark Harper stands out on this list as the only member of the Cabinet who has publicly taken responsibility for their actions.

He was the immigration minister in charge of telling immigrants to “go home” under David Cameron back in 2014, plastering the message all over vans which toured the country. Except, it turned out, he employed a cleaner who did not have permission to work in the UK.

He resigned over the affair, a show of contrition which appears to have evaporated completely among senior politicians in recent years.

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